Monday, June 18, 2012

CDC says 4% of Central Appalachian surface miners tested have black-lung disease

Nearly 4 percent of surface coal miners who work in Central Appalachia who were tested for a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have black lung disease, compared to 2 percent of all U.S. surface miners and 3.2 percent of underground coal miners. (Getty Images photo)

Though the study didn't test Kentucky separately from the 14 other states assessed, Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal in Louisville asked about it and found that "13 of 230 Kentucky surface miners tested — or 5.7 percent — had black lung," she reports, quoting Cara Halldin, a CDC epidemic intelligence service officer, as calling that number " a disproportionate burden."

It's not clear why the incidence is higher in Central Appalachia than other parts of the country, but Halldin suspects it has to do with "more years spent mining, area geology or the safety culture at mines," Ungar reports. One study showed miners who work in Central Appalachia typically work 28 years in the mines while non-Appalachian miners work average 20 years.

Black-lung disease, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is the result of miners repeatedly inhaling the dust that comes from extracting coal. That dust occurs whether the miner is under- or above-ground. "Coal mining is really, really dusty. Don't matter what you do, you're in the dust," said John Bud Ritchie, a retired surface miner who has black lung disease. "It's real rough. You can't hardly keep the dust down on hot days."

The federal exposure limit for "respirable dust" in underground and surface mines is 2 milligrams of coal dust per cubic meter of air. That limit was set in 1969, along with a law that set up "a surveillance system for assessing prevalence of black lung among underground coal miners," Ungar reports. "But the requirement for surveillance doesn't extend to surface miners." Haldin said, "Industry should recognize this is a problem and their workers are at risk and bring down the levels." (Read more)

In the wake of the CDC study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is offering free black-lung screenings in Eastern Kentucky, Hazard, Ky.'s WYMT-TV reports. The screenings will be at various locations in Eastern Kentucky throughout the summer and will be confidential. They will include a work history questionnaire, chest X-ray and a spirometry test, with the whole process lasting about 25 minutes. NIOSH will provide participants with results of their screenings, and will not release information to the public or give it to coal companies. For a list of when and where the screenings will take place, click here

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