A significant finding in black lung research was published today in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The letter (which is embedded below) was written by staff at a black lung clinic in southwest Virginia (Stone Mountain Health Services) and the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
It finds 416 coal miners with the severe form of black lung known as progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). This is “the largest cluster of PMF reported in the scientific literature.”
The average miner with severe black lung was a 61.8 year-old retired miner from Kentucky or Virginia who worked in underground mines for 27.9 years. But some were as young as 38, worked as few as 8 years in the mines, or worked on surface mines, and many (12.4%) were still working when they had their x-ray done. The x-rays were done between January 1, 2013 and February 15, 2017.
The most important thing about this study though is the sheer scale: 412 coal miners with an incurable lung disease caused by their exposure to too much coal-mine dust. Because NIOSH’s previous official data only recognized 99 miners nationwide with PMF, this finding is an exponential increase. (For previous coverage of this resurgence, including data from another clinic, see previous coverage here.)
In response, National Public Radio (NPR) provided an article that gives additional context: “Black Lung Study: Biggest Cluster Ever Of Fatal Coal Miners’ Disease.”
The article is worth a full read but three quotes stand out:
As one of the NIOSH researchers, Dr. Scott Laney said: “Even with this number, which is substantial and unacceptable, it’s still an underestimate.”
Attorney Joe Wolfe called it a “public health emergency” that needed an intervention: “There are people literally working in the mines right now … that have complicated black lung that do not have a clue.”
And lastly, the director of the black lung program at Stone Mountain Health Services, Ron Carson, reminded us of the grim and underrecognized consequences of black lung: “Mining disasters get monuments . . . Black lung deaths get tombstones. And I’ve seen many a tombstone in [the last] 28 years from black lung. And I’m seeing more now. A lot more now.”