The official blog of the Lung Institute.
People living with pneumoconiosis, which includes black lung disease, silicosis and siderosis, understand the severity of their disease. Stemming from the Greek language, meaning dusty lungs, pneumoconiosis is a type of occupational lung disease caused by inhaling particles of mineral dust.
Specifically, black lung disease is an occupational lung disease caused by prolonged breathing of coal mine dust. Commonly called miner’s lung, coal miners and workers who process or ship coal are at an increased risk for developing black lung disease. Black lung disease symptoms include increased mucus build up, chronic coughing, shortness of breath and pulmonary hypertension.
While legislations to protect coal miners were created in the 1950s, recently, there has been a rise in new cases of advanced black lung disease. Here’s what you need to know.
New Cases of Advanced Black Lung Disease Rise
A National Public Radio (NPR) investigation has found that coal miners across Appalachia have developed black lung disease in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators stated. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported 99 cases of complicated black lung disease, also known as progressive massive fibrosis, over the last five years.
However, NPR gathered data from 11 black lung disease clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. In fact, the true number is likely even higher.
After spending much of their careers findings ways to better protect miners, doctors and researchers are shocked by the data and find it both disheartening and disappointing.
A radiologist at a small health clinic in Kentucky was alarmed by the numbers of coal miners he saw with severe black lung disease, and he contacted NIOSH researchers. The small health clinic saw 60 cases of advanced black lung disease in 20 months. NIOSH researchers went to the clinic and verified the diagnoses.
NIOSH released a report that focuses on the clinic, concluding that cases are being missed by the government’s count. The radiologist at the clinic told NPR that he has diagnosed 10 more cases of advanced black lung disease since the NIOSH researchers left the clinic.
What Does the Research Show?
NIOSH researchers have acknowledged in their report that they have missed hundreds of cases with their national surveillance program. By law, they can only x-ray working miners, and participation in the testing is completely voluntary. In fact, NIOSH data shows that most miners avoid or decline testing, and only 17 percent of all working Kentucky miners were tested in the program since 2011.
Many miners avoid the NIOSH testing because they worry it may cost them their jobs.
The last company a miner worked for, as long as the miner has been there for a year or more, must offer black lung disease benefit payments and medical care. Even if the miner worked elsewhere in excessive dust, the last employer pays.
However, it’s against the law for a company to punish or fire miners for getting x-rays or being diagnosed with black lung disease. According to the National Mining Association, companies also are not supposed to see the x-rays, and it’s at the miner’s discretion whether or not the miner shares that information.
More cases of advanced black lung disease are being diagnosed with increased testing.
Coal Dust or Rock Dust?
Doctors, NIOSH researchers and other black lung disease experts believe that thinner coal seams in central Appalachia may be to blame. The thickest coal seams are nearly gone, leaving thin ones. However, the remaining thin coal seams have coal embedded in rock that contains quartz. Cutting quartz and coal together creates mine dust that includes silica. Silica is very toxic to lung tissue, often leaving many miners with silicosis. In addition, slope miners cut solid rock to reach coal seams.
Protective masks are one of the measures used to prevent the inhalation of coal and silica dust. Ventilation in mines is supposed to sweep dust away, and water sprays to help keep dust down.
What is Being Done Now?
New and stricter federal limits on mine dust exposure took full effect in August. The new regulations have gotten even tougher on excessive silica dust as well. Early stages of black lung disease and advanced black lung disease can take a decade or more to develop. It could take a decade or more before the effectiveness of the new rules is known.
Currently, there isn’t a cure for black lung disease. However, there are treatment options available to help people with black lung disease. Often, doctors prescribe or recommend medications and procedures, such as inhalers, oxygen therapy and lung transplant surgery. Stem cell treatment for black lung disease is also available. Stem cell treatment works to promote healing from within the lungs and has the potential to improve quality of life. If you or a loved one has black lung disease, pneumoconiosis, occupational lung disease or another chronic lung disease and would like to learn more about your stem cell treatment options, contact us at (800) 729-3065.