Researchers from the University of Chicago recently released a study that confirmed that more coal miners in central Appalachia have suffered from black lung disease than previous government research has found. The study further found that more miners working in the region today have earlier stages of the disease. Researchers reviewed black lung benefit claims filed with the USDOL and identified more than 4,600 cases of severe black lung disease since 1970. More than half of the cases occurred in the last 16 years.
Other recent studies, including one from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”), revealed 416 cases of black lung disease in three clinics in central Appalachia from 2013 to 2017. This represents the largest cluster of black lung disease ever reported in scientific literature.
There is also a growing number of lung transplants for miners with the most severe symptoms of black lung disease. The NIOSH study found a threefold increase in the rate of lung transplants due to black lung disease. At least 62 coal miners with seriously advanced disease had lung transplants, and almost 80 percent in just the last decade. An additional 27 miners were put on waiting lists and either died before they could get transplants or became so sick they no longer qualified. The average cost of each transplant and follow-up care is $1 million – state or federal programs pay for 2/3 of the transplants, and these costs are expected to rise.
Researchers express tremendous concern about these increasing figures. Black lung disease, which is preventable, was nearly eradicated in the mid-1990s. Clinics in Appalachia went from seeing five to seven black lung cases per year to seeing that many new cases per week. An NPR investigation found that the likely cause of the epidemic is longer work shifts for miners and the mining of thinner coal seams, coupled with layoffs and retirements brought on by the decline in coal mining.