Black lung disease is a respiratory disorder caused by breathing coal mine dust. The disease is also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). The prevalence of black lung disease has increased since 2012, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Current statistics report one in ten coal miners who worked in coal mines for 25 years or more have been diagnosed with black lung.
Black Lung Disease: Causes and History
In 1969, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, making the elimination of black lung a national goal. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been tracking black lung disease in miners since the 1970s through their Coal Workers Health Surveillance Program. The program collects data and offers periodic chest x-rays to detect the disease early.
In the late 1990s, black lung disease dropped to the lowest level on record. However, since 2000, the disease has been increasing throughout the nation, especially in the Appalachian area. Coal miners in the Appalachian region are more likely to be affected than workers elsewhere in the U.S. Currently, one in five workers from central Appalachia have been diagnosed with the disease.
Simple vs Complicated Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis
Coal miners are susceptible to either a mild or severe case of CWP.
- Complicated CWP, also known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF), is diagnosed when a patient’s lungs are severely scarred due to inhaling large amount of coal dust for a longer period of time.
- Simple CWP is the milder diagnosis. This means the lungs have less severe spots or scar tissues from coal dust particles.
Both types of the disease present similar symptoms. They include coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. It often takes decades for the disease to develop, so many people don’t have symptoms until after they retire.
CWP Diagnosis and Treatment
Most CWP patients are over the age of 50 when they are diagnosed. During diagnosis, a doctor will take a detailed history to assess the patient’s exposure to coal dust. They will also order a chest x-ray or a CT scan. The patient may be asked to complete a pulmonary function test to show how well the lungs are working.
Black lung treatments can ease symptoms, but there is no cure for the disease. Since breathing coal mine dust is the only cause, the disease is highly preventable through dust control methods and proper protection to reduce exposure.
Early detection is also key to managing the disease. Current and retired coal miners should monitor their health regularly and consult their doctor if they notice respiratory symptoms.