Black lung disease cases spike among former US coal miners

Kentucky coal miner. Photo by United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

The proportion of US miners with Progressive Massive Fibrosis has grown dramatically since 1978, with a significantly accelerated rate of increase since 1996.

This is according to researchers at the University of Illinois, who delved into the data of 314,176 miners applying for black lung benefits from 1970 through 2016. Of those, 4,679 people were suffering from PMF.

The scientists also found that the highest burden of disease is in the central Appalachian states of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“The miners affected appear to be working in smaller mines that may have less investment in dust reduction systems,” said Kirsten Almberg, lead author of the study and a research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at UI’s Chicago School of Public Health.

In a university press release, Almberg added that due to changes in mining practices over time, mines today may produce higher levels of crystalline silica, which is more damaging to the lungs than coal dust, during coal extraction. “And miners appear to be working longer hours and more days per week, leaving less time for their lungs to clear the dust that has been inhaled,” the researcher explained.

Progressive massive fibrosis or PMF is a respiratory disease afflicting coal mine workers and caused by inhaling coal dust and other particulates.

In theory, rates of PMF should have declined following a 1970s legislation that mandated that companies should control dust levels in US coal mines. However, as Almberg and her colleagues discovered, the disease is making a comeback.

“More research is needed to determine the causes of this increase in disease, but what is clear is that miners in recent decades have been over-exposed to dust, and ways to reduce these exposures is much-needed,” the researcher admitted.