After declining from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, incidences of pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as black-lung disease, have risen in the past decade and led to the deaths of an estimated 10,000 miners. During that time Black-lung disease, which comes from inhaling coal mine dust, can lead to shortness of breath, scarring of the lungs, emphysema, disability, chronic coughing, and premature death.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), after the passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, cases of black-lung had dropped by about 90 percent. However, by 1995, the downward trend stopped, and since then the number of black-lung cases has doubled.
So, why has black-lung shown a resurgence? While the exact reasons are not known, the NIOSH points to several possible explanations including:
- Shortcomings in existing coal-mine-dust regulations and safety measures.
- Failure to enforce or comply with those safety regulations.
- New mining practices and techniques that increase exposure to dust.
- Coal miners work longer hours in recent years.
- Miners not participating in screenings (including chest x-rays) that would potentially detect early problems or warning signs.
New rules are being considered that would require some miners to utilize a device known as a continuous personal dust monitor. The monitors would let miners know instantly what they are exposed to, but would cost about $10,000 each.
This issue is critical in West Virginia, where a 2007 study showed that the incidence of pneumoconiosis in miners in Raleigh and Mercer counties was twice the national average.