Black lung disease is not a relic of the past. A study released last month in the American Thoracic Society Journal shows a resurgence of the disease. Using data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the researchers found an eightfold increase in the past 15 years and the highest recorded levels since the federal government began regulating coal dust more than 40 years ago.
The prevalence of progressive massive fibrosis in the lungs of the coal workers studied was at the highest level since the early 1970s.
Back in 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act limited the amount of dust in mines with an expectation that black lung disease would be virtually eradicated. The Black Lung Benefits Act of 1973 also ensured benefits, in cooperation with the States, for coal miners who were injured by the disease and future benefits for coal miners and their dependents. Prevalence declined until the late 1990s, when only 0.33 percent of working miners had the severest form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. The Illinois Coal Association reported that the disease was essentially eliminated in the Illinois coal basin.
To the researchers’ dismay, this trend has reversed course. The September 2014 study comes on the heels of a long-awaited rule, effective August 1, with parts phased in over the next two years, from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That rule lowers the permissible levels of dust and expands the NIOSH surveillance program to include above-ground miners and expands testing for all mine workers. Members of Congress have also pushed new federal legislation for coal mines under the Black Lung Health Improvements Act.