7/2/2013 6:18 PM
by Rebecca Turco
SCARBRO - About 1,500 retired coal miners die from black lung each year and that number is on the rise, according to officials.
Black lung is an occupational disease caused from inhaling coal dust, which scatters throughout the lungs in small nodules.
Since the year 2,000, black lung diagnoses have increased, according to Certified Medical Assistant Susie Criss. Criss is the Black Lung Program director at the New River Breathing Center in Scarbro.
"We currently have seen patients as young as 38 and 39 who are developing spots on their chest x-rays from black lung disease," explained Criss.
The Breathing Center's Black Lung Clinic recently did 211 chest X-Rays during a fourteen-month period to look for dust-related lung disease. 172 of the X-Rays were positive, of which seven were classified as complicated black lung. In this form of the disease, the miner's condition will only get worse with time.
"It's the perfect storm of things that have been going on in the industry that have made black lung disease become on the rise again," said Criss.
One reason for the rise in cases could be the longer hours miners are working. Some spend twelve to fifteen hours underground each day, for six to seven days a week.
"Their lungs don't get a chance to clear out," explained Family Nurse Practitioner Tammy Campbell-Cline of the New River Breathing Center. She said miners work, sleep and do it all again the next day, so their lungs do not have enough exposure to clean air in-between. "If they refuse to work those hours, then they can be replaced," Campbell-Cline said.
Black lung patient Gary Hairston of Beckley agreed, saying production is of the essence in the mines. "If a piece of equipment broke down, if they couldn't move it and if it was dust, I didn't wait till it cleared up," he said. "I worked the equipment even when the dust was coming through."
National Black Lung Association President Joe Massie said unsafe working conditions, which he calls "outlaw mining," also contributes to more cases.
Criss said if the coal companies better adhered to the safety laws, the black lung rates could decrease. "I think that miners can keep from getting black lung if they use the safety measures that are in place," she said.
Miners should be getting frequent chest X-Rays as a precaution starting early in their careers, according to Criss and Campbell-Cline. They recommend miners try to use respirators and other safety measures legally in place.