Appalachian health officials report a shocking rise in cases of black lung — the deadly coal-mining disease thought to have been reined in by a landmark federal law passed in 1969. Young miners are proving particularly vulnerable because the thinner coal seams now being worked in Appalachia leave them vulnerable to a more volatile black lung strain rooted in silica dust, according to an investigative report by National Public Radio.
The emergence of a new generation of miners gasping for their lives should give President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to revive the industry, reason to reflect on a safer course for the very workers he claimed to prize as a candidate. There is no known cure for black lung, a wearying disease responsible for 78,000 deaths since 1968.
Two reports confirm a resurgence of the disease in a virulent form called progressive massive fibrosis (P.M.F.). The NPR study, based on data collected from 11 clinics, confirmed 962 cases of P.M.F. in the past decade. This month, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported on a small Kentucky clinic where 60 cases of P.M.F. were reported. Before their Kentucky report, federal health officials had counted a total of only 99 cases nationally in the last five years.
“We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia,” Scott Laney, an epidemiologist with the national institute, said about the emerging threat.
Officials concede that hundreds of additional cases go unreported because X-ray testing is offered only to working miners who volunteer. They hesitate to take part, fearing they will lose their jobs because mining companies resent having to pay years of health costs once black lung is diagnosed. Only 17 percent of working Kentucky miners have been tested since 2011. But that total will grow as the 40,000 miners who have lost their jobs since 2010 feel freer to be checked out. By law, their last employer is responsible for paying health costs. Some 600 mines have closed, many pleading bankruptcy.
The costs of the black lung resurgence include increased strain on the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and on strapped state benefit programs. Special help for miners provided by the Affordable Care Act will disappear if that law is repealed. These are the real challenges for the next president, not his ballyhooed campaign promise to bring back jobs that are proving ever more deadly.
Source: New York Times