Black lung disease continues to surge in Eastern Kentucky. New research suggests why.
By Will Wright, May 23, 2019
| Lexington Herald Leader – New mining methods that churn up silica-laden rock are likely responsible for the surge of black lung disease that has afflicted hundreds of miners across Central Appalachia in recent years, according to new research presented at the American Thoracic Society’s annual meeting this week.
The research provides further evidence that new mining methods used to extract thin seams of coal have led to the surge of black lung in Eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and other parts of Appalachia.
It also further confirms that coal companies and federal regulators have not adequately created or enforced silica dust regulations, said Robert Cohen, the co-director of the Black Lung Center of Excellence, who led the new research project.
“Our work preventing this entirely preventable disease is not succeeding,” Cohen said. “Clearly we have more work to do.”
Black lung is incurable and often leads to an early death. The disease is caused by breathing in dust created during the mining and transportation of coal.
While some research has found evidence of the detrimental health impacts of silica dust, the new research “is probably stronger evidence than we’ve had to date that silica may be driving a large portion of (black lung),” Cohen said.
Many of the larger, more-accessible coal seams in Eastern Kentucky and other coal-producing regions of Central Appalachia have already been mined, leaving miners to target thinner seams. To access what coal remains, miners must cut through more silica-containing rock.
That silica dust, rather than the coal dust, has become the lead cause of black lung in recent years, according to the new research, and existing regulations have not proven effective in limiting miners’ exposure to the deadly silica dust, Cohen said.
“This adds additional weight to the idea that we really have to be watching silica and enforcing silica very carefully,” Cohen said.