MINES ADDRESS BLACK LUNG DESPITE GOVERNMENT OBSTRUCTION
It appears that the Obama Administration is using the Black Lung issue and pseudo-scientific methods to carry on its war with the coal mining industry. As a result, The Labor Department’s fiscal 2012 appropriations bill, approved by Congress, prevented the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) from moving forward with its proposed health rule on black lung disease until after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) completes an eight-month study and issues an “interim report” on the data collection, sampling and analytical data and methodologies underlying MSHA’s proposal.
But, that doesn’t mean that Black Lung isn’t a problem or that American coal mines are ignoring the issue. Information from MSHA Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Programs indicates that severe cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly referred to as “black lung” disease, continue to occur among our nation’s underground coal miners. Most troubling is the fact that these new cases include progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), the most disabling and potentially fatal form of CWP, among some of the younger miners in the industry.
Although Black Lung has been a health issue since the first miner climbed into a coal mine, it was first noticed by doctors nearly two centuries ago. Miners’ asthma was first used in 1822 to describe the lung disease occurring among coal miners. The cause of the spitting, coughing, and breathlessness in coal miners was unknown, so doctors used the well-known word asthma to identify the condition. Later, silicosis became known as the disease producing breathlessness in miners who had worked where silica was thought to be in the coal mine dust
The risk of having black lung disease is directly related to the amount of dust inhaled over the years and the disease typically affects workers over age 50. Its common name comes from the fact that the inhalation of heavy deposits of coal dust makes miners lungs look black instead of a healthy pink. Ironically, people who live in cities often have some black deposits in their lungs from polluted air.
Since the particles of fine coal dust, which a miner breathes when he is in the mines, cannot be destroyed or removed from the lungs, it builds up. Eventually, this build-up causes thickening and scarring, making the lungs less efficient in supplying oxygen to the blood.
The primary symptom of the disease is shortness of breath, which gradually gets worse as the disease progresses. In severe cases, the patient may develop an enlargement and strain of the right side of the heart caused by chronic lung disease. This may eventually cause right-sided heart failure.
Some miners develop emphysema as a complication of black lung disease. Others develop a severe type of black lung disease called PMF, in which damage continues in the upper parts of the lungs even after exposure to the dust has ended. It is this form of black lung that has health officials at MSHA the most concerned. Doctors aren’t sure what causes this serious complication. Some think that it may be due to the breathing of a mixture of coal and silica dust that is found in certain mines. Silica is far more likely to lead to scarring
The industry has taken a two prong approach to reducing the risk. The first is to carefully monitor the amount of respirable dust a miner is exposed to. Personal dust monitors, which can cost thousands, allow mines to monitor each miner’s health and help identify “hot spots” where dust levels may be too high.
The second part of controlling black lung risks is reducing the levels of dust in the mine. Water sprayers are found on mechanical equipment to suppress dust and huge ventilation fans above ground push fresh air into the mine.
Respirable dust control technology has improved, but miners still run the risk of developing this lung disease. However, the risk is much lower today and the cases that are discovered are much less severe. In the early 1970s, 11% of underground coal miners had signs of black lung. Today, that number is less than 3%. And, when there is such evidence, it often shows up as only small black spots and may have been caused by smoking rather than coal dust. This condition is does not lead to symptoms or disability.
The mining industry has made great strides in eliminating black lung. Although it is no longer the killer it was, it remains an occupational hazard for underground coal miners. Mine managers have to be aware that it hasn‘t gone away and aggressively monitor and control respirable dust.