Black Lung Resurgence Drives Push to Protect Coal Miners Against Silica Dust

by | Mar 14, 2023 | Health

McROBERTS, Ky. — Like most coal miners’ loved ones, Liz Williams has endured many days and nights of worry.

Throughout the four decades her husband, Michael, worked in underground Appalachian mines, Liz was aware of the risks: collapse, explosions, asphyxiation. But black lung — a chronic condition caused by breathing in coal dust — wasn’t on her mind.

That’s because the number of miners diagnosed with the often-deadly disease declined for decades, after federal officials introduced regulations more than 50 years ago.

But no more. The numbers have climbed precipitously as mining techniques have evolved to extract increasingly hard-to-reach coal reserves. After a career in the mines, Michael Williams, 62, now lives with an advanced stage of black lung.

Williams, a resident of the small town of McRoberts, is among a growing number of people diagnosed with the disease in central Appalachia, a region primarily comprising West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia. The increase in the disease’s most deadly form, progressive massive fibrosis, has been especially pronounced. Since 2005, black lung cases have tripled in the region and PMF has increased tenfold among long-term miners. A study published last fall identified the driving force behind the spike in severe black lung disease as silica dust.

“We were seeing much more severe disease,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the study’s lead author. “We were seeing disease in younger miners, with lesser exposures, so, therefore, more intense exposure.”

Silica is the same toxic dust that has been pinpointed in recent years as the cause of deadly lung disease in workers i …

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