Wednesday, July 05, 2017

NPR finds many more black lung cases in miners in 4 Appalachian states than feds find in all of U.S.

Independent research from NPR shows that black-lung disease is still an epidemic among coal miners in Appalachia, despite much lower official numbers from federal officials.

NPR recently reported 1,000 new Appalachian cases of the most advanced form of black lung, progressive massive fibrosis. That brings its total findings to 2,000 cases diagnosed in the region since 2010, reports Howard Berkes for NPR. He uncovered the new cases by collecting data from black lung clinics, doctors and attorneys in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia; it notes that the numbers are probably higher because many clinics couldn't provide data.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported only 99 cases in the entire country for the same time period. NIOSH is reviewing medical records at four clinics in Virginia and Kentucky to begin getting a better idea of the true number of black lung cases. After members of Congress became worried about the spike in cases, NIOSH, the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services promised to work together to get a more accurate number.
Sliced lung sections of lungs show exposure to coal and silica dust. The middle slide indicates simple coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung. The right slide shows hardened and blackened tissue when the disease reaches its most advanced stage. (Slides from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, via NPR)
"There's a great deal of evidence ... that definitively demonstrates that we are in the midst of an epidemic of black lung disease in central Appalachia," epidemiologist Scott Laney said in a presentation to a National Academy of Sciences committee in Morgantown, W.Va. The committee is investigating efforts to keep miners from breathing in the coal mine dust that causes black lung.

Gregory Meikle of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said almost all mining companies have been compliant with tougher coal dust exposure limits for the past decade in an effort to keep miners from developing the lethal disease, according to NPR. Meikle acknowledged that a case of black lung can take longer than 10 years to show symptoms, though.

Laney said that mines may not be as compliant with safety measures as the books suggest. "I don't think there's any reason for me to believe that there's any exposure measurements on the books that can account for that level of impairment," he said in the NPR story.

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