The occupational lung diseases are in focus in the U.S, where there has been a dramatic spike in cases of severe black lung amongst miners in the Appalachia states.

The coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) or black lung is caused by inhalation of coal and silica dust which scars the lung tissue and diminishes its ability to breath. There’s no cure for the illness once it’s developed, and the only option is a lung transplant.

According to the latest National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)’s report, thousands of miners in central Appalachia suffer CWP.  The prevalence of black lung here is four times higher than the national average, and for one in 20 long-tenured miners their CWP will develop into progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), a progressive severe respiratory disease.

This is the highest rate in a quarter century. These numbers will continue to grow as more miners get tested after their symptoms, which can take up to 10 years to appear, present themselves.

Interestingly, the incidence of CWP and PMF in the U.S. had been declining since the 1970s after a legislation went into effect mandating control of dust levels in U.S. coal mines. After Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, which made the elimination of black lung a national goal, CWP dropped to historically low rates by the 1990s, and PMF was considered very rare. However, the latest NIOSH report indicates that the disease is definitely back.

The situation is worsened by the fact that this year the federal coal excise tax that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund has decreased from 55 cents per tonne of surfaced-mined coal to $25 cents. The fund provides benefits to black lung victims as well as their eligible survivors and dependants, when the companies can’t pay.

The surge in black lung cases and lack of urgent response from the authorities led to rallies by miners and advocates in West Virginia Capitol in support of a series of bills aimed at preventing and treating the severe black lung disease.

Many experts in the industry believe the NIOSH report clearly indicates the failure of the current safety measures and rules to protect staff from the occupational exposure. There are also calls for increased sanctions for mine operators that violate the safety rules.

Early detection of black lung and limiting additional dust inhalation is critical to prevent the disease from progressing to its most severe form.

Two men in gear standing in front of NIOSH mobile screening unit To facilitate the early detection of black lung in the Western United States, this year NIOSH has introduced a series of free, confidential health screenings to coal miners, past and present, as part of its Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP). NIOSH provided mobile testing units at convenient mine and community locations (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota).

Prevention continues to be a key factor in reducing the mining CWP statistics. Black lung is a debilitating disease, but it can be prevented. Businesses need to focus on adequate safety training and effective PPE to successfully manage respiratory risks in the mining industry.