Bad News for Miners: Black Lung Is Back

Cases have doubled in a decade despite regulations
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Jul 9, 2012 10:40 AM CDT
People sit near the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine Monday, April 5, 2010 in Montcoal, W.Va.   (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

(Newser) – Black lung was thought to be on its way out following new mining regulations in 1969—but the disease is resurging and has some health experts using the word "epidemic," according to an NPR/Center for Public Integrity investigation. Its occurrence has doubled over the past 10 years, and in one section of Appalachia covering parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, cases of the disease's final stage have quadrupled. "It feels like I've got a heavy wet sack on each lung," says a victim of the breath-stealing disease.

The 1969 regulations initially cut cases by 90%, leading many to believe it was on a path to extinction. But though mining firms and regulators have been aware of miners' overexposure to disease-producing coal mine dust over the past 20 years, they have "failed to protect" their workers, reports NPR. Among the more damning facts and stats:

  • Autopsies on 24 of the miners killed in the 2010 Big Branch mine blast showed that 71% had signs of the disease.
  • Some victims have developed the disease after a relatively short period in the mines, it's advancing to worse stages more quickly, and it's affecting younger miners—in their 40s, 30s, and even 20s.
  • This could be due in part to more exposure: In the last three decades, the workweek has gotten 11 hours longer, translating into 600 extra hours in the mines annually.
  • Mining machines are more efficient these days, meaning, says a pulmonologist who works with miners, "they release more silicon dioxide, and the increase in silica is more toxic than just the coal dust itself."
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