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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Black Lung Update: New Study Confirms Worst Form of Disease Persists

Published: August 11, 2012


By Jeff Young


A normal lung (left) and one with Progressive Massive Fibrosis, the advanced form of black lung. (Courtesy NIOSH)

A new study adds more evidence of an alarming persistence of black lung disease in its most severe form.

A new study in the medical journal Chest adds more evidence of an alarming persistence of black lung disease in its most severe form. A review of chest X-rays and other medical data from West Virginia coal miners reveals 138 cases of the most severe form of black lung, known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis, between 2000 and 2009. At least 21 of those miners have died.

Dr. Edward Petsonk (featured in LOE’s May 27 story on black lung’s resurgence) and colleagues at West Virginia University reviewed state records of miners whose black lung claims were approved in the past decade. They found that the miners with the severe form of black lung saw their lung function decline “at a markedly accelerated rate,” and that the disease is showing up in “relatively young West Virginia coal miners.”

Petsonk and his colleagues write that records clearly show an increase in all types of black lung beginning in 2001. From 1995 to 96, black lung showed up in only about 3% of the chest X-rays of experienced miners—those with 20 years or more of work history. By 2006, 14% of experienced West Virginia miners showed evidence of the disease. And the researchers write that their study “likely underestimates the actual number of West Virginia miners who developed severe occupational lung disease” in the past decade.

Most distressing, perhaps, is that all the miners in the study identified with the aggressive form of the disease spent their entire careers working in “safe” conditions. “Virtually all of these miners’ dust exposures occurred after the implementation of current federal dust regulations,” according to the study.

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