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Severe black lung disease resurging among miners: study

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San Diego — More than 4,600 coal miners have developed the most severe form of black lung disease since 1970, with nearly half of the cases emerging after 2000, according to a recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Researchers examined 314,176 benefits claims, filed from 1970 to 2016, from the Department of Labor’s Federal Black Lung Program. Findings revealed 4,679 confirmed cases of progressive massive fibrosis, including 2,318 identified in the last 17 years. According to the report, miners with the disease had worked most recently in West Virginia (28.4 percent), Kentucky (20.2 percent), Pennsylvania (20 percent) or Virginia (15.3 percent).

Inhaling respirable coal mine dust causes black lung disease, clinically known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states. In progressive massive fibrosis, small shadows in the lungs called opacities combine to grow large, creating airway obstruction and shortness of breath.

A 2016 CDC report uncovered a resurgence of the disease since 1999, including an outbreak of cases in eastern Kentucky between January 2015 and August 2016.

By limiting miners’ exposure to inhaled dust, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and the 1969 legislation it amended had helped curtail cases of black lung significantly. Lead study author Kirsten Almberg, research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the UIC School of Public Health, said theories for the wave of cases include an increased exposure to dust.

“The miners affected appear to be working in smaller mines that may have less investment in dust reduction systems,” Almberg said in a May 22 press release. “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 researchers presented their findings May 22 at the American Thoracic Society’s International Conference in San Diego.

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