New research finds coal miners are at increased risk of death from more diseases than just black lung, the latest evidence of the dangers of coal mine dust putting West Virginians in especially great peril.
Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently found that coal miners suffer increased mortality from other diseases, including lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The study spanning nearly four decades of death data found that coal miners suffer from substantially elevated odds of death from lung disease caused from dust inhalation, obstructive lung disease and lung cancer, compared to their counterparts in the national population.
The higher mortality has worsened over time and is particularly severe in Central Appalachia, according to the study published in the March edition of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal.
“Prevention efforts that include controlling exposures to respirable coal mine dust should address all of these serious diseases,” Dr. Kirsten Almberg and Dr. Robert Cohen, occupational health researchers with the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, said last month in a blog post published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study comes amid a sharp increase of severe black lung disease incidence in Central Appalachia, especially among younger miners.
“These findings come as no surprise to the UMWA,” United Mine Workers of America union spokeswoman Erin Bates said in an email.
“The evidence is clear that the work done by coal miners is in many ways more dangerous than ever before,” Chelsea Barnes, legislative director of environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said in a statement. “We need unprecedented action to ensure they have the resources needed to protect their health and well-being after they leave the mines.”
Bates said the study underlines the need for miner health-focused legislation like the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act, a measure that has failed in recent Congresses that advocates say would make sorely needed upgrades to the federal black lung benefits system.
Miners in the Central Appalachian states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia face the most severe risk of black lung disease, COPD and lung cancer, Almberg and Cohen said.
Central Appalachian coal miners born in 1940 or later had over eight times the odds of dying from a nonmalignant respiratory disease, like black lung or COPD, than their counterparts in the general population, the researchers found. That eightfold increase was the highest odds of death from nonmalignant respiratory disease in all age groups examined.
The study reviewed cause-of-death data from the National Death Index, a national database of all deaths in the United States, on 235,550 U.S. coal miners who died between 1979 and 2017 and had participated in either the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program or the Department of Labor’s Federal Black Lung Program.
The federal exposure limit for a highly toxic dust driving up black lung cases across Central Appalachia is the same now as it was before even that expansive study review period.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s exposure limit for coal mine silica remains double the limit that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended in 1974.
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The Department of Labor sent a MSHA-proposed rule on silica to the Office of Management and Budget for review. That review is still pending, according to the office.
A department spokesperson declined to discuss the contents of the proposed rule but said the department welcomes stakeholder feedback on any proposed rule that is published.
MSHA’s coal mine silica exposure limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air is double the limit of 50 that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended 49 years ago. It’s also double what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits.
Silica dust is composed of small particles that become airborne during drilling, chipping, cutting, grinding and other work activities. Exposure to silica dust has increased with miners cutting into more surrounding rock as coal seams thin.
Cohen testified in 2019 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that freshly fractured respirable silica is highly toxic and causes significantly more lung scarring than coal dust.
A 2018 report on underground miners working from 1970 to 2017 found that severe black lung in Central Appalachia had reached its highest level since record-keeping began in the 1970s.
Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners and their families in black lung and mine safety cases, said MSHA’s silica rule-making progress is “long overdue.”
“Safeguards to protect miners from disabling disease haven’t kept pace with research or the risks miners face,” Shelton said in a statement. “We’ve known for far too long that the standards to protect miners from toxic dust haven’t been strong enough.”
MSHA also made rule-making efforts for silica dust regulations in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2010 and 2014.
“We are all eagerly awaiting an opportunity to provide public input on the draft rule and to continue the effort to protect the health of miners across the country.” Shelton said.
The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act would have increased benefits for those disabled by black lung and their survivors, and increased the number of miners who could claim those benefits, in addition to authorizing a CT scan to diagnose complicated pneumoconiosis, the most severe form of black lung.
The proposal was cosponsored in the Senate by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But West Virginia’s other members of Congress were either noncommittal or nonresponsive regarding the legislation.
“Miners are being asked to sacrifice their health to help power our country,” Barnes said. “We ought to be doing everything possible to protect them and to secure a strong safety net for them and their families.”