Yesterday National Public Radio ran a piece by Howard Berkes following up on his important reporting from earlier this year about the alarming resurgence of severe black lung. The story covered recent presentations that NIOSH researchers have made to a committee of the National Academy of Sciences and to stakeholders in Appalachia.
Three things stand out.
1. NPR’s count of coal miners in Appalachia diagnosed with complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (the most severe form of the disease) is now up to 2,000—all since the year 2010.
This is 20 times the official NIOSH statistic for the entire country.
This is not to say that NIOSH researchers are ignoring the problem though. In fact the reason for this story was the attention that NIOSH is now paying to the problem.
2. NIOSH Researcher Dr. Scott Laney told the National Academy of Sciences committee: “There’s a great deal of evidence, over 500 pages of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, that I’ll be submitting to the committee today that definitively demonstrates that we are in the midst of an epidemic of black lung disease in Central Appalachia that is historically unparalleled.”
And as he said during a presentation in Pikeville, Kentucky earlier this year: “If we come to your town, there’s generally something bad going on there. . . We’re at the epicenter of one of the largest industrial medicine disasters that the United States has ever seen.”
3. The “good news” in the room was provided by an MSHA representative, Greg Meikle, who said that 99% of coal mines were complying with the new, safer dust regulations that went into full effect in August 2016.
But Dr. Laney pointed out that we should temper our optimism with caution:
Laney said the mining industry’s compliance record has been high for at least a decade. There wouldn’t be as much advanced black lung disease now, he suggested, if the compliance rates accurately reflected actual exposure to the coal and silica dust that cause advanced disease.
“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,” Laney said.