Every few months like clockwork,Â newsÂ stories haveÂ been appearing to report aÂ rise in incidence rates forÂ coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP).Â Â The format goesÂ something like this:Â
- Headline: Black lung on the rise!
- Lead: NIOSH reports sharp increase in black lung cases
- Body: How can this be?Â It’s so perplexing.
You’d thinkÂ they’reÂ talking about aÂ never-seen-before viral disease.Â Instead, it’sÂ all aboutÂ CWP, a diseaseÂ that is 100% preventable, yet it’s being treatedÂ as if it is a mystery that can’t be solved.Â
This time, the story appeared inÂ the Beckley, WVÂ Register-Herald which reported on aÂ public briefingÂ byÂ a NIOSH researcherÂ for theÂ WV House Select Committee on Mine Safety.Â NIOSH’s Lee Petsonk, MD provided the state lawmakers with preliminary results of a specialÂ chest X-ray screening program conducted in selected WV counties.Â According to the news account, among the miners screen in Raleigh and Mercer counties, the incidence of pneumoconiosos was twice the national average.Â The articles continues:
“What is even more puzzling is that miners are contracting deadly black lung at a younger age, meaning workers who start a career in the industry at 18 show evidence of it in their 30’s, the physican told the panel.Â Research performed in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia revealed almost identical results he said.”
What’s troubling about this newspaper account and the ones before it,*Â is the suggestion that these casesÂ are a big surprise and that there is some mystery about why they are occurring.Â TheÂ reasons mentioned in this story included:
- low coal seams inÂ certainÂ mines, which put minersÂ in closer proximity to the dust;
- longer work daysÂ for miners; and
- higher percentage of crystalline silica in the coal dust.
Indeed, all of these things can contributeÂ to a miners’ overall exposure to coal dust, but it looks like a reminder is in order–theÂ reason that miners develop CWP is EXPOSURE to respirable coal dust.
After the NIOSH presentation, the WV House Select Committee passed:
“a resolution seeking a full report on the disorder and possible solutions for the January interim [session].”
Rather than study the issue any further, the Committee can save a lot of time by simply reviewing the 1996 report of the Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee on the Elimination of Pneumoconiosis Among Coal Mine Workers.Â It contained 20 major recommendations including:
- separate exposure limits for coal dust and silica dust;
- verification of respirable dust plan based on actual coal production;
- a refined sampling protocols for extended work-shifts;
- the use continuous dust monitoring; and
- miners’ participation in dust monitoring.
Futhermore, it has been more than 12 years since NIOSH recommended that the permissible exposure limit for coal mine dust should be cut in half (i.e.,Â from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3.)Â The agency’s risk assessment provided substantial epidemiological evidence that theÂ current 2.0 mg/m3Â work-shift exposure limit is not protective.Â In fact, at the current limit over a working life-time, about 15% of miners will develop CWP.Â So, should we really be surprised that this is exactly what’s happening?
After the Sago disaster, we saw how quickly theÂ WV legislators responded with safety improvements like emergency communication systems and refuge chambers.Â WV Delegate Mike Caputo and his colleaguesÂ on the Committee on Mine SafetyÂ should repeatÂ thisÂ example byÂ adopting a 1.0 mg/m3 coal dust limit to protect miners’ health.Â If West VirginiaÂ waits for federal MSHA to act, their ownÂ mountaineer-miners willÂ suffer.Â