Federal investigators have identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung cases ever officially recorded. Over 400 coal miners frequenting three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017 were found to have complicated black lung disease, an extreme form characterized by dense masses of scar tissue in the lungs. This cluster adds to the mounting pile of evidence that a new black lung epidemic is emerging. One of the most troubling facts that David J. Blackley, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has identified is that nearly a quarter of the miners with complicated black lung disease had been on the job fewer than 20 years. That is an alarming number of young miners who have the end-stage disease and the only choice is to get a lung transplant or die.
Scientists have linked this new wave of lung disease to miners breathing in more silica dust. Silica dust from pulverized rock can damage lungs faster than coal dust alone, leading to more aggressive forms of black lung assumingly. The unknown downfall of modern machinery, insufficient health precautions for workers, and longer work hours may also contribute to increased dust exposure, experts are saying.
Black lung was thought to be on the decline between the early 1970s and late 1990s, following new health and safety rules put in place by the 1969 Coal Act. But by 2000, those numbers of workers with black lung were on the rise again. A more advanced form of black lung which was rarely seen in the mid-1990s is on the rise. This rise in black lung cases have been clear for some time but we are now just realizing that magnitude of this problem. Now comes the question of what to do about such alarming statistics. More training, as well as precautionary measures, need to be taken for these miners in order to ensure a safer work environment.