Earlier today the radio program Here and Now—which runs on National Public Radio—ran a program called “The Resurgence of Black Lung in Appalachia.”
The eleven-minute piece is available on the Here and Now website and is embedded below.
The host interviews a retired coal miner Howard Cook from Letcher County, Kentucky with complicated black lung and epidemiologist Dr. David Blackley from NIOSH who has done research into the resurgence of black lung (for examples of Dr. Blackley’s research, see here, here, here, and here).
(Disclosure: Mr. Cook is my client and I helped connect him and the producers of Here and Now).
The subject of the shows was the recent resurgence of black lung, and specifically the aggressive form of the disease known as progressive massive fibrosis (“PMF”) or complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.
Mr. Cook gave his first-hand experience based on 27 years underground, saying that while he never saw coal operators making end-runs around safety regulations, that he never thought of black lung as eradicated.
As Mr. Cook said, “I’m like a third-generation coal miner. My grandpa, he contracted black lung. My dad has it now, and now me so I’m probably talking 30, 50, 70 years and, we’re definitely not there now. If it is preventable, we’re not doing a very good job preventing it.“
Dr. Blackley talked about the signs of the resurgence:
“What’s going on is that it’s making a comeback because miners are breathing in too much coal mine dust. We’re seeing new black lung cases in coal fields around the United States, but by far the biggest resurgence has been here in central Appalachia, so Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The current levels of severe black lung, or complicated black lung, in Appalachia are now as high as we have seen since we began keeping records in the early 1970s, so we’ve essentially seen a big U-shaped curve, where it went down almost to zero and then back up. Along with that, we’re seeing more coal miners with disease characteristics resembling silicosis, we’re seeing black lung onset in younger miners, we’re seeing rising numbers of state and federal disability claims and then, I think most troublingly, we’re seeing rising numbers of lung transplants for coal workers with pneumoconiosis or black lung, and lung transplants are a last ditch intervention because there’s no cure for this disease.”
As for causes, Dr. Blackley talked about the geologic factors in Central Appalachia and more powerful equipment producing more dust. Mr. Cook talked about the longer hours that miners worked towards the end of his career: while early in his career he worked 40 hours a week, towards the end he was working 60 hours a week. This means that he was breathing most dust and had less time for his body to get the dust out.
Mr. Cook also talked about the need for more awareness about NIOSH’s periodic lung examinations and the legal protections that prevent coal companies from firing miners who are concerned about their health:
“As a coal miner myself, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know I could be getting periodical checks without raising some kind of red flags, you know or, lack of no better way of putting it, I guess the company looking down on you. It would be a thing that I would probably do if I was still working before I had my 27 years or so in, and even myself, I guess I would have made a decision if I saw some trace of black lung then I would have to ask myself, where do I go from here? If I can’t feel like I can change something underground to help that, do I need to look for other work? And I would say to any young coal miner, you know the rules and regulations, or you wouldn’t be there, and there’s no one that can make you go against that, so stick with the guidelines, the rules and regulations and try to protect yourself all you can.”