The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

December 11, 2007

Black lung on the rise in W.Va.

Research also finds disease striking younger miners

CHARLESTON — Longer working hours and low seams of coal might explain a dramatic upswing in black lung among southern West Virginia miners, a federal official suggested Tuesday.

In the first leg of renewed research, Dr. Lee Petsonk, chief medical officer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, tested miners in Raleigh and Mercer counties, learning the incidence of pneumoconiosis was twice the national average.

“These people, I don’t know how they’re working,” he told the House Select Committee on Mine Safety while displaying a slide of one diseased miner’s lung.

“It’s one of the more severe cases to still be alive.”

What is even more puzzling is that miners are contracting deadly black lung at a younger age, meaning workers who start a career in the industry at 18 show evidence of it in their 30s, the physician told the panel.

Research performed in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia revealed almost identical results, he said.

However, the average in Alabama, Illinois and Utah was about 2 percent, below the national trend, Petsonk said.

“And they’re mining coal there, too,” he told the committee. “Plenty of it.”

Back in 1970, about 36 percent of the industry’s work force came down with the scourge, but the number dipped to 7 percent in 1995. Now, it has shot back up to 13 percent, he said, grabbing the attention of the experts at NIOSH.

“These are good, hard-working people who are doing our nation’s bidding,” Petsonk said of the industry’s workers.

Questioned by the committee’s chairman, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, himself a former miner, the NIOSH official suggested that low coal seams prevalent in southern counties put miners closer to freshly broken rock and silica dust which is more toxic than coal.

What’s more, miners are putting in extended work days, leaving them less time to clear their lungs between shifts, Petsonk said.

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