Why Have Coal Miners' Black Lung Rates Doubled?

  • Scott Detrow

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The entrance to a Virginia coal mine


Health experts say coal miners are facing a black lung “epidemic.” A joint NPR/Center for Public Integrity investigation has found diagnoses for the respiratory disease have doubled within the previous decade. What’s causing the resurgence? StateImpact Pennsylvania spoke to NPR correspondent Howard Berkes about the series. He began the conversation by explaining how miners develop black lung by inhaling too much coal dust.

A: Dust particles form in the lungs and cause lesions to form. Over time, if there’s enough exposure and enough of these particles get in the lung, there’s serious loss of lung functioin. One black lung expert we talked to who also treats black lung victims told us it’s kind of like having a screw turning in your neck, and day after day, year after year, restricting your breathing. He referred to it as a kind of torture. The people who suffer black lung…gradually lose their ability to breathe. They get to the point where they choose between eating and breathing, because they can’t do both at the same time. And they sleep sitting up because they can’t breathe if they lay down to go to sleep. It’s a particularly horrific death.

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Q: And NPR and CPI have found the number of diagnosed cases has pretty much doubled in the last decade?

A: The National Institute of Occupational Safety and healthy has been gathering information from chest x-rays…they have information on about 43 percent of the nation’s coal miners. What that information shows is that of those people who they do have data for since 1970, they look at that and see a doubling in basic black lung in the last ten years.

What they also see, in a region of Virginia and West Virginia and Kentucky, is a quadrupling of the worst stages of black lung. What the data also shows is…younger miners coming down with the disease, and more rapid progression of the diseases from early stages to advanced stages.

Q: Did the people you talked to have any theories of why this trend was so much worse in Virginia, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky?

A: That may have something to do with the geology – with the type of rock that’s mixed in with the coal seams there. What we hear is the best coal seams are gone. They’ve already been mined. What’s left are thinner coal seams that are surrounded by rock. Mining technology has improved such that mining machines can now chew up that rock with the coal, as they’re mining it. We’re talking about coal seams that I’ve heard as as little as two inches thick. So the mining machine is going to pick up a lot of rock in the process. Well the rock in that region is quartz, and it contains silica. So it’s producing a mine dust that has both coal and silica. And the combination of silica – which is basically crushed glass – and coal is especially volatile. It’s especially poisonous to the lung. That’s one explanation we hear.

…You can’t have more than five percent silica in the coal dust that miners are exposed to. So there’s that limit on silica. The way that’s practically limited, then, is reducing the amount of coal dust that miners are exposed to. …But what we found is that there’s constant overexposure to silica. Since 1987, for example, there were 113,000 valid silica samples collected in coal mines. And 52 percent of those exceeded federal standards. And in one year alone, 1998, about 65 percent of those samples were about the standard. So even though there’s a standard, miners aren’t being protected.

Berkes reports that between 2000 and 2011, 53,000 air samples contained more coal dust than federal law allows. Regulators issued just 2,400 citations during that period.

A: This is a big loophole in the law. The law permits mining companies to take their own samples. After a violation is found by a federal mine inspector the mining company goes in and can take their own samples. They get to take their own samples and they average them. And if the average of the five samples beats the standard, then the violation is dispensed with. This is a system that depends, to a great extent, on self-policing by an industry that has no interest in turning in valid samples, because that would only slow down the mining process and cost them money, if they were in violation.

We found examples that inticate that there’s widespread gaming of this system, and there has been for the 40 years that these regulations have been in place.

Read part two of the interview here.

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