MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — New data show many more coal miners across Appalachia suffering from the most serious form of black lung disease than federal regulators previously reported.
National Public Radio reported Friday that its investigation shows cases 10 times more prevalent, with data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio showing 962 cases so far this decade. Some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data about their “complicated” black lung cases.
On Thursday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that 60 current and former miners — from Pike, Floyd, Letcher, and Knott counties in Kentucky — were diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung, between January 2015 and last August. Those stricken struggle to breathe.
“The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said. “We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.”
In the last three years, 644 cases of complicated black lung were diagnosed at Stone Mountain Health Services with clinics in three Virginia communities. That’s six times the NIOSH national count in nearly half the time.
Laney and other black lung experts believe thinner coal seams in Appalachia are probably to blame. The thin seams that remain have coal embedded in rock containing quartz — producing mining dust with silica that’s especially toxic in lung tissue.
The latest NIOSH findings, first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, were all from one radiologist. They also show a statistical spike, up from 31 cases identified nationwide from 1990-1999.
“I think the percentage of black lung that we’re seeing now here in central Appalachia is unprecedented in any recorded data that I can find anywhere,” said radiologist Brandon Crum at United Medical Group clinic in Coal Run Village, Kentucky. “In this clinic we’re roughly around 9 to 10 percent complicated rate, which is around three times higher than even the highest reported numbers.”
Crum told NPR he was alarmed also that some affected miners were in their 30s and 40s and had worked less than 20 years underground. Since contacting NIOSH researchers, he has identified 10 more cases.
Mackie Branham, 39, of Elkhorn Creek, Kentucky, mined coal for 19 years running machines that drilled bolts into mine roofs, often working double shifts and seven-day weeks. Severe breathing problems forced him to stop in March.
His father has the disease, but at an earlier stage. Branham just heard this week he’ll soon get black lung benefits, hoping the first check arrives so he can buy his five children Christmas presents.
The disease has caused about 78,000 deaths since 1968, according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 1969, Congress passed a law intended to wipe out the disease by setting limits on miners’ exposure to breathable dust.
Laney and his colleagues acknowledge that they have missed hundreds of cases in the national surveillance program. They can X-ray only working miners. Testing is voluntary. Only 17 percent of working Kentucky miners were tested since 2011.
Some miners said coal companies will get rid of them if they find out they’re getting tested. Those out of work in coal’s downturn are increasingly getting screened for the disease and applying for black lung benefits.