There is an “urgent need” for changes in the way the mining industry approaches the problem of exposure to coal dust. This recommendation comes after a recent report exposed a surge in underground US coal miners suffering from black lung disease.
The report, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in May, shows that over 4,600 US miners have developed a severe form of black lung disease since 1970. Half of these cases of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) occurred after the year 2000. Most employees with PMF last worked in mines in West Virginia (28.4 per cent), Kentucky (20.2 per cent), Pennsylvania (20 per cent) and Virginia (15.3 per cent). These areas have experienced large increases in PMF diagnoses over the past 40 years.
Since the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, the industry has been working towards the elimination of respiratory diseases caused by dust; however, this objective has still not been achieved. In fact, rates of progressive massive fibrosis have generally been on the rise since 1970. Simply complying with monitoring regulations may not be enough to protect miners in the future, or reduce current disease rates.
Black lung disease is a serious condition which turns lungs from pink to black. Once it progresses to PMF, emphysema and scarring of the lungs may occur. This leads to breathing difficulties and premature death (as early as age 30 or 40 in some cases). The only way to cure the condition is to get a lung transplant. The longer someone is exposed to coal and silica dust, the greater their chances of developing PMF.
The congress-sponsored National Academies report recommended that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH should work together to monitor cases, and study the causes of black lung disease, as well as ways to prevent it.
The report also suggested that training and safety programs should be improved, and recommended the use of tools such as silica monitors.
Thure Cerling, a professor of Biology, Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, and co-author of the report, stated that, “There is an urgent need for monitoring and sampling strategies that enable continued, actual progress to be made toward the elimination of diseases associated with coal mine dust exposure.”
According to scientists, one of the contributing factors is a lack of investment in dust-reduction systems. Miners also work longer hours and more days each week to meet demand and keep up with competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources. Modern mines also produce higher levels of crystalline silica, which damages the lungs even more than coal dust.
Kirsten S. Almberg PhD, the lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that although it was known that black lung clinics were reporting increased numbers of cases, researchers were still “surprised by the magnitude of the problem” and “astounded by the fact that this disease appears to be resurging despite modern dust-control regulations.” The resurgence in PMF, after it was almost eradicated in the mid-1990s, shows that “history going in the wrong direction.”
The study authors concluded that more focussed research is needed to tackle “this disabling but preventable disease”. Researchers want to see a reduction in “coal mine dust exposures”, and “improved secondary prevention, including medical surveillance of working coal miners to identify early stages of disease and halt its progression.”