A Resurgence of Black Lung Disease Among Miners

A recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that more than 4,600 coal miners have developed the most severe form of black lung disease since 1970, with nearly half of the cases emerging after 2000.

According to a report in the National Safety Council’s official Safety + Health magazine, researchers examined 314,176 benefits claims, filed from 1970 to 2016, from the Department of Labor’s Federal Black Lung Program. Findings revealed 4,679 confirmed cases of progressive massive fibrosis, including 2,318 identified in the last 17 years. According to the report, miners with the disease had worked most recently in West Virginia (28.4 percent), Kentucky (20.2 percent), Pennsylvania (20 percent) or Virginia (15.3 percent).

Inhalation of respirable coal dust can lead to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), a potentially disabling lung disease. Inhalation of excessive levels of silica dust can lead to silicosis, another disabling lung disease.

The most severe form of these diseases, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), can be fatal. Data from NIOSH’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP) indicates that beginning in 2000 the prevalence of CWP has increased following a 30-year downward trend.

Also, recent findings indicate that an unprecedented increase in PMF has occurred after the prevalence of PMF had fallen to 0.08% among all miners examined by NIOSH in the CWHSP in the late 1990s.

A 2016 CDC report uncovered a resurgence of the disease since 1999, including an outbreak of cases in eastern Kentucky between January 2015 and August 2016.

By limiting miners’ exposure to inhaled dust, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and the 1969 legislation it amended had helped curtail cases of black lung significantly.

Lead study author Kirsten Almberg, research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the UIC School of Public Health, said theories for the wave of cases include an increased exposure to dust.

In a May press release, Almberg said: “The miners affected appear to be working in smaller mines that may have less investment in dust reduction systems. Due to changes in mining practices over time, mines today may produce higher levels of crystalline silica, which is more damaging to the lungs than coal dust, during coal extraction.

Almberg added that miners appear to be working longer hours and more days per week, leaving less time for their lungs to clear the dust that has been inhaled.

On August 1, 2016, Phase III of MSHA’s respirable dust rule went into effect:

  • The concentration limits for respirable coal mine dust are lowered from 2.0 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air (mg/m3) to 1.5 mg/m3 at underground and surface coal mines; and
  • The concentration limits for respirable coal mine dust are lowered from 1.0 mg/m3 to 0.5 mg/m3 for intake air at underground mines and for part 90 miners (coal miners who have evidence of the development of pneumoconiosis).

Lowering the concentration of respirable coal mine dust in the air that miners breathe is the most effective means of preventing diseases caused by excessive exposure to such dust.