A new study shows that black lung disease isn’t limited to coal miners who work underground. Studies for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis—or black lung disease—haven’t been done on surface miners in a decade, and the miners were commonly thought to be less at risk for the disease than underground workers. Surface mines are open to the air, after all, and underground coal mines have frequent dust issues caused by mining in constricted spaces without much ventilation.
But the new study shows that surface miners get black lung, too.
Dr. Edward Petsonk is with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Division of Respiratory Disease. He says black lung—and the more serious form of the disease, progressive massive fibrosis—is showing up in miners who have spent their whole career at surface mines.
“A lot of the miners who had this most severe form of the dust disease had never worked underground,” he said. “So this really, in a new way, indicts the exposures on the surface.”
Pneumoconiosis is only caused by dust—it’s not linked to other risk factors, like cigarette smoking.
“The only people who get this disease are people who have had too much dust in the air that they have to breathe,” Petsonk said. “So that implies that the dust controls are far from adequate at surface coal mines.”
The study also found that surface miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia were more likely to get black lung. Petsonk says he’s not sure why that is, but it could reflect regional differences in geology. A spokeswoman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration said the agency is still reviewing the study.