In what one epidemiologist calls a "slow-rolling disaster," a new set of studies presented at an American Thoracic Society conference this week offered glum news for coal miners. Per NPR, more Appalachian miners are plagued by both early- and late-stage pneumoconiosis, or "black lung disease," than previous research suggested. Sifting through nearly 50 years of federal benefit claims linked to the respiratory illness caused by inhaled coal mine dust, Kirsten Almberg and Robert Cohen, co-authors of one study, found more than 4,600 cases of progressive massive fibrosis (the most severe stage of the illness), with more than 50% of them taking place over the past 16 years. And David Blackley, a scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has conducted the government tracking program, says his initiative has recently spotted more early stage black lung as well.
"It's not that we're discovering a new disease," Cohen tells NPR. "We're seeing a resurgence of a disease that should have been eradicated." One study cited at the ATS meeting noted miners with simple black lung continued to see deteriorating lung function after they ceased going into the mines, meaning they may eventually get PMF. That study also noted a growing number of lung transplants in PMF patients. Why the numbers have been so underreported: Previous NIOSH studies have relied on voluntary testing by working miners only, with about 60% of miners never getting diagnostic X-rays. Newer research also looked at black lung clinics. A 2016 CDC study backs up claims of a PMF resurgence. "We've gone from having nearly eradicated PMF in the mid-1990s to the highest concentration of cases that anyone has ever seen," a NIOSH epidemiologist recently told NPR. (More bad news for miners in Kentucky.)