Climate

Black Lung Among Coal Miners At Highest Level In 40 Years

CREDIT: AP/Janie Osborne

A mine employee stands in the entry of the Signal Peak Energy mine in Roundup, Montana on November 9, 2010.

Rates of a deadly form of black lung are the highest they’ve been in 40 years among Appalachian coal miners, according to federal experts.

Scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a letter Monday in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine that stated that levels of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) have risen to levels not seen since the early 1970s among coal miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. The high numbers come just 15 years after the “debilitating and entirely preventable respiratory disease” was “virtually eradicated,” the scientists note.

PMF is caused only by breathing in too much coal mine dust, the letter said, so the increase in rates “can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition.” The letter also notes that 2014 marks the 45th anniversary of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which aimed to curb incidence of black lung among coal workers by implementing dust standards. Current rates of PMF prove that exposure to coal dust continues to be a major health hazard for coal miners, however.

“Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” the letter reads.

David Blackley, one of the letter’s authors who works at the NIOSH office in Morgantown, West Virginia, told the Charleston Daily Mail that he was “shocked” when he looked at the black lung data.

“It was a much bigger resurgence than we were expecting,” he said. “At the absolute most basic level, the bottom line is these miners, especially in these three states, are breathing in way too much dust.”

Blackley also noted that, since his research focused solely on PMF, the rates of all forms of black lung are likely much higher among coal miners.

In April, the White House unveiled new standards for the level of coal dust miners can be exposed to, a rule that aims to decrease the amount of coal dust in the air in mines by 25 percent in two years.

Also in April, an investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found U.S. coal miners’ average workweek has grown by 11 hours longer over the last 30 years, an increase that, in turn, has led to about 600 more hours of coal dust exposure every year. NPR spoke with a coal miner who had PMF, which he was diagnosed with at age 40.

“Now it feels like I’ve got a heavy wet sack on each lung,” Mark McCowan, a coal miner who lives in Virginia, told NPR. “Breathing has become a conscious effort. … It seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, that it gets smaller and smaller.”

Earlier this year, a retired coal miner from Kentucky traveled to Denver, Colorado to attend a hearing for the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed power plant rule. The miner, Stanley Sturgill, spoke to the EPA about the black lung he now suffers from, as well as the health problems that coal pollution has caused in his community.

“We’re dying, literally dying for you to help us,” he said.

However, many lawmakers from coal-heavy states haven’t been supportive of the new EPA rule. Twelve states, all of whom are major producers or consumers of coal and include Kentucky and West Virginia, are suing the EPA over the rule, which the states call unlawful. Lawmakers in Kentucky and other coal-producing states have likened the rule to a “war on coal,” saying that, by regulating emissions from power plants, the EPA is unfairly targeting the coal industry.

Some lawmakers in coal-heavy states, however, have lauded the rule, saying, as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) did, that they support the EPA’s “goal of safeguarding the public’s health.”