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Black Lung Is a Growing Problem in Appalachia

Black lung, the condition forever linked to the mining industry, has been steadily creeping upward since a low in the 1990s—and it’s increasingly appearing in the states where the practice persists, including eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia, according to a newspaper report.

Pneumoconiosis, as it’s officially known, is caused when miners breathe the silica—sandstone dust—created by mining activity. The most severe form, known as complicated black lung, is called progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF.

Wendy Holdren of the Register-Herald, a newspaper based in Beckley, Wv., reports that more cases of black lung, especially PMF, are appearing in the Appalachian region. It’s a product of miners “working in low coal seams,” meaning beds of coal between 20 and 30 inches tall, using equipment “that cuts through a larger section” of the seam. Silica is released into the air when equipment slices into the rock around the coal.

Cases of the condition are increasing at nearby health centers, according to the report. That correlates with a Journal of the American Medical Association report published in February highlighting cases at three federally-funded clinics in southwest Virginia. The study observed 11,200 miners; 416 were diagnosed with PMF.

Federal and state regulations exist to prevent the condition by requiring good ventilation of the mining area and measurement using dust monitors. Yet miners are often “told to skirt regulations by placing their personal dust monitors in the clean air intake, giving an inaccurate reading of the air the miners were actually breathing,” according to the Register-Herald’s report: “It helps pass federal inspections. It helps keep mines open. It helps keep men at work.”