Monday, July 09, 2012

Black Lung Makes a Reappearance In American Coal Mines

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Enactment of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was supposed to sharply cut exposure to coal mine dust.
The act set a standard for coal dust exposure (2 milligrams per cubic meter of air), which was as little as 1/4 of the concentrations miners breathed at the time.

The act's passage followed a 23-day unauthorized and rowdy strike in which 40,000 West Virginia coal miners demanded government efforts to prevent the disease and to compensate victims.

By the end of the year, tough dust exposure limits were in place. Miners were offered free diagnostic chest X-rays every five years, and federal compensation became available.

The X-rays showed 4 in 10 miners tested had black lung. The disease killed 1,800 miners in a single year. But diagnoses soon plunged more than 90 percent, according to NIOSH data.

"They anticipated that no one would develop progressive massive fibrosis," says 84-year-old Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in Beckley, W.Va., who says he's tested 40,000 coal miners in the last 50 years.

"In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned all about it," he adds. "And I was dead wrong."
The regulations did result in a major decrease in black lung deaths at the outset, but after a period of long decline, the numbers are on the rise. The numbers have been rising since the mid 1990s.

Thus, even though the federal regulations are being met on coal dust exposure, the miners are apparently being afflicted in greater numbers as a result of silica that is being thrown into the air by the very equipment that is supposed to make the miners' jobs easier. They're so effective and are being used to scrape away the rock to get at the coal seams that they are creating a toxic brew in the air.

This is the kind of situation that would seem to call for new protections, including requiring masks for certain mining operations near the face of the mines. Some mining companies will complain that their profits may be squeezed by the regulations, but they'd still come out ahead because they'd have a healthier workforce which is more effective and efficient.

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