Black lung, the dreaded coal miners’ disease that had been on the decline, has roared back. The worst form of the illness now afflicts a higher proportion of miners than at any time since the 1970s, new research from U.S. government scientists shows.
The likely culprit, researchers say, is a failure by coal mining companies to use readily available tools to control the dust that lodges in miners’ lungs and causes the disease.
Each case of advanced black lung “is a tragedy, and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” the researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a letter published Monday in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
A spokesman for the National Mining Association said the trade group had not yet had the opportunity to review the findings in detail, but told BuzzFeed News that “our industry continues its efforts to control coal dust to improve miners’ health.”
Back in 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act limited the amount of dust allowed in mines with the expectation that the disease would be virtually eradicated. This appeared to be happening: Prevalence declined until the late 1990s, when only 0.33 percent of working miners had the severe form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.
Then, to researchers’ dismay, this trend reversed. The numbers released Monday place the rate in 2012 at 3.23 percent, almost a ten-fold increase. But even this number is almost certainly an undercount, as researchers previously have noted when describing data derived from the government’s surveillance program. Participation is voluntary and does not include miners who have retired or had to quit because of disability — workers likely to bear the largest disease burden.