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In the 1990s, diagnosis of black lung disease (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) had dropped to historic lows. Complicated black lung disease — also called pulmonary massive fibrosis (PMF) — was considered to be a rare condition. Occurrences had been steadily dropping since Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. The act contained measures to reduce coal miners’ exposure to toxic coal dust. 

Today, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that black lung disease affects 10% of miners. And diagnosis of PMF in miners has jumped from 0.08% in the 1990s to 5% currently. Cases are disproportionately clustered in central Appalachia, an area where coal mining is a primary economic driver. 

What is causing the re-emergence of a lung disease that was thought to be almost eradicated 30 years ago?

What Is Black Lung Disease?

Black lung disease is an occupational chronic lung disease that develops from breathing in coal dust. Dust particles get trapped in the airways and lungs, and the body triggers an immune response to try and remove them. The immune response causes inflammation, which in turn causes lung scarring (called fibrosis). Black lung disease is not curable, but it’s preventable by reducing coal miners’ exposure to coal dust. 

What Is Causing a Resurgence?

One factor contributing to a resurgence is coal miners’ increased exposure to silica dust, along with coal dust. Miners create silica dust when they cut through sandstone to reach coal seams. Over the past several decades, miners have stripped away large coal seams, leaving smaller, thinner seams that require them to cut through more sandstone to reach. Silica dust is more toxic than coal dust and may be contributing to increased cases of PMF. 

Federal regulations are another factor contributing to new occurrences of black lung disease. Currently, regulations set an exposure limit for coal dust and require workers to use continuous personal dust monitors. However, silica dust exposure is not directly regulated, and miners cutting through sandstone may be exposed to more silica dust than coal dust. Additionally, coal mine workers are not required to use masks or respirators on the job.

Long shifts may be taking a toll on workers’ lungs. The development and severity of black lung disease are dependent on the amount of dust inhaled and the length of time spent working in the mines. According to an inside look at coal mines from Business Insider, miners usually work in shifts and can be on the schedule for 10 days in a row. Time spent underground can last anywhere from 7 to 12 hours. 

Lung Health Institute Treats Black Lung Disease

Lung Health Institute has treatment options for chronic lung disease. Our cellular therapy uses a patient’s own cells to address chronic inflammation within the lungs. It may be able to reduce airway inflammation, prevent further lung damage and slow the progression of your disease. The goal of cellular therapy is to help you Breathe Easier™ and maintain or improve your current quality of life. Our treatment is minimally invasive, it’s performed as an outpatient procedure and there is no downtime afterward. 

If you are interested in learning more or scheduling a free consultation, contact one of our patient coordinators today. 

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