Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from black lung in record numbers. There has been a major resurgence of the deadly disease, also known as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. Miners develop black lung from breathing in coal dust. The dust particles settle in the lung where they cause inflammation and, eventually, fibrosis. Black lung causes shortness of breath, fits of coughing, and chronic bronchitis. It is progressive, incurable, and deadly. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that more than 76,000 Americans have died as a result of black lung since 1968.
Why the resurgence now? Many attribute the rise to changing mining practices. As the coal seams that are being mined shrink in size and become more difficult to reach, mining operations must break up more rock to get to the coal. The rock in these mountains contains high amounts of silica, which aerosolizes into very fine particles and is implicated in other fibrotic diseases of the lung. This may be the reason that case numbers of the most serious form of black lung have risen dramatically.
More miners are also coming to clinics for care. Although it is against the law to fire miners for getting chest x-rays or being diagnosed with black lung disease, many believe that if the mining company finds out that you’ve been tested–they’ll find a way to replace you. With the decline of the coal industry, more than 40,000 miners have lost their jobs since 2010 and six hundred mines have closed. Those laid-off miners are now coming in to clinics for care–and black lung diagnoses are sky-rocketing.
Here in Cabin Creek, The Breathing Center in Dawes, WV is a comprehensive pulmonary function facility with a rehab clinic and a federally approved Black Lung Center. The clinic provides pulmonary testing and rehabilitation, and a community-centered approach that allows people suffering from this difficult disease to come together and support each other. Importantly, the clinic also provides legal help to miners filing a claim for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1973. This is a federal law that provides monthly payments and medical benefits to miners disabled by black lung. It’s an arduous process, so navigation help is critical. These benefits make a huge difference to the miners and their families.
Many in our group have able to spend time in the Breathing Center, learning about black lung and seeing patients in pulmonary rehab. This is a unique experience, as this disease is rarely seen outside of Appalachia. These miners worked very hard, in very dangerous settings, out of a necessity to provide for their family in a place with few other options. Getting to spend time with them is enlightening, and helps to illustrate the brutal legacy of occupational hazards endured in the pursuit of profit in this country.
West Virginian Word of the Day:
Red Hat (n.): For the first year on the job, a new underground coal miner wears a red-colored hardhat to signal to everyone on the crew that he (or she) is a rookie.