Black-lung coal miners facing serious threat from virus spread

Coal miner (Adobe Stock)

The biggest labor union for U.S. coal miners is warning that members are at “significant risk” from the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

Mines are enclosed spaces where the highly contagious virus can easily spread, said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. The trade group is developing guidelines that it plans to issue to members soon, he said by email Thursday.

Miners also face greater health risks. As many as 20% of long-time miners may have black lung in central Appalachia, a historic bastion of U.S. coal production that includes parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. That would be an underlying health condition that could exacerbate the symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus that was officially labeled a pandemic on Wednesday.

Overall in the U.S., about 10% of coal miners could have black lung disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC report on black lung studied miners who have worked in the industry for more than 25 years.

Old age adds another risk factor for the Covid-19 virus, said Anna Allen, a West Virginia doctor who cares for black lung patients. While there are no reported cases in West Virginia, the virus has been spreading quickly across the U.S. “Eventually it’s going to come to West Virginia,” said Allen, who’s also an associate professor at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.

(By Will Wade)

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