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Ohio Valley Region's Black Lung Rates Highest In 25 Years

Howard Berkes
A new health study finds the surge in cases of black lung disease is especially concentrated among coal miners in Central Appalachia.

A new study by federal health officials finds the recent surge in cases of black lung disease is especially concentrated among coal miners in central Appalachia.

Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say the rate of black lung disease among experienced miners in central Appalachia is the highest they have seen in a quarter century.

Epidemiologist Cara Halldin supervises the coal workers’ health surveillance program for NIOSH, and is one of the study authors. She said the cases are concentrated among miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.  

“In the U.S. it’s about 1 in 10, in Central Appalachia it’s about 1 in 5, which is really concerning,” Halldin said.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / NPR
An X ray image of an Appalachian coal miner with black lung lesions.

The study, published in theAmerican Journal of Public Health, focused on active, underground miners with 25 or more years of experience. Only miners who participated in the surveillance program were included, Halldin said, so it is possible that the rates of black lung could be much higher.

The disease is caused by exposure to coal dust, which federal regulations require the mining industry to control.

“But this much disease suggests that miners are being exposed to way too much dust,” Halldin said.

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences called for a “fundamental shift” in the way the mining industry monitors and controls coal dust.

Last week,federal prosecutors brought felony charges against eight employees at two Kentucky coal mines for falsifying dust monitoring results.  

NPR’s Howard Berkes contributed to this story.

ReSource managing editor Jeff Young has reported from Appalachian coalfields, Capitol Hill, and New England’s coast, among other places. Jeff worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and was Washington correspondent for the nationally distributed program Living on Earth. Recently, he directed communications for ocean conservation with The Pew Charitable Trusts in Boston. Jeff grew up near Huntington, West Virginia, and studied journalism and biology at Marshall University and the University of Charleston. His reporting has been recognized with numerous awards and he was named a 2012 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University.
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