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It's a long word.  The sort of word that would eliminate most contestants in a spelling bee.  It was the word that my Italian born grandmother could barely understand when the doctor uttered it to her:


You know it as black lung disease.

It comes from breathing a mixture of coal and silica dust.  The coal dust turns the inside of the lungs black and produces a black spittle.  The silica scratches the lung tissue, causing fibroids to form.  Both elements labor the breathing.  As the lungs become less efficient, the heart enlarges and strains and eventually, fails.

It was three years after the diagnosis when my grandfather died.  I was four years old and barely remember him.

In 1967, the State of Pennsylvania, where he lived, passed a law that compensated all black lung victims for medical expenses and damages.  My grandmother lived on that monthly check until she died in 1996.

Two years later, the US Congress passed the Coal Mine Safety Act, later amended in 1977.  The legislation strengthened mine safety and safey enforcement and ordered compensation for all miners disabled by black lung.  But it was too late for Grandpa.  He died in 1967.

In 1997, The Department of Labor made some changes to its regulations that gave doctors a bigger say in determining whether or not a claimant had black lung and therefore could be compensated.  After two challenges and appeals by the National Mining Association, with full backing from the Bush Administration, the courts upheld the new rules.  But for two years, between 2001 and 2002, cases languished.

Even today, however, mining companies aggressively fight most new claims.

The number of victims began decreasing after the legislation passed in 1967 until 2003, when the Centers for Disease Control started finding increases in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

The increase both in the number of cases and their severity "justifies a comprehensive assessment of current dust-control measures," the recent report said.

Researchers examined 328, or 31 percent, of some 1,055 coal miners who were working underground in Lee and Wise in March and May of this year. They ranged in age from 21 to 63 and had worked in the mines for an average of 23 years.

Thirty of the miners had evidence of black lung, and 11 of the cases were advanced, according to the report.

Why is the rate rising if dust control measures are in place?  And why in just these two areas?

The miners with the advanced cases had an average age of 51 and had spent an average of 31 years working in underground coal mines.

Researchers suggested several possible reasons for the increase and severity of the black lung cases: that the allowable dust limit may be too high; that the levels of coal dust reported may be underestimated; and that the toxicity of the coal being mined may be higher.

But is that the whole answer?

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigators have suggested that they are seeing more cases of miners with black lung disease in small, nonunion mines.

The same institute cites studies that show black lung victims are getting younger.  

The report identifies 22 counties in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia as "hot spots." It also notes a handful of other such counties in Alabama and Colorado.

In these states miners in their 30s, 40s, and early 50s are getting black lung. That's about 10 to 30 years sooner than in the past. Thirty-five percent of the cases were described as rapidly progressive, meaning the scar tissue in the lungs was spreading about twice as fast as normal.

By comparison, my grandfather suffered his symptoms at age 60.

The study tracked X-rays of more than 29,000 miners between 1996 and 2002. It found about 3 percent had black lung, or coal miners' pneumoconiosis. That compares to 10 percent in 1969. This study was conducted before the recent boom in coal production and the related speedup by the mine owners and their profit-driven disregard for safety. This has resulted in the deaths of 37 miners so far this year, overwhelmingly at nonunion mines.*

The study cites Somerset County, Pennsylvania, as one of the worst counties in the country for black-lung rates. George Ellis, Pennsylvania Coal Association president, said the findings contradict much of what he hears, reported the Tribune Democrat. "It's the first I've heard of a problem in Pennsylvania," he said.

My grandfather died in Somerset County, Pennsylvania almost 40 years ago.  It's a shame we haven't made greater progress.

* In the citations, you can find more information about why non-union mines are so dangerous.  But in short, their intake/exhaust systems are not as reliable or effective.  They do not provide equally adequate protection for miners working all parts of the extraction process.

Originally posted to suzq on Mon Oct 02, 2006 at 07:07 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I thought some of you could use a break (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, roses, nio, sockpuppet, debedb

    from the Foley files.

    Besides, this could shoud be a campaign issue in Southwest "the real state of Virginia" and Pennsylvania.

  •  My grandfather died (8+ / 0-)

    sixty-five years ago, in Daviess County, Indiana.  I never met him.  He had been there for the founding of the UMW, and had helped found the UAW when the mineworkers went on a years-long strike.  He was a Socialist; two uncles who died in infancy were apparently named after Eugene V. Debs.  I don't know if he had Black Lung; he died in an explosion.  The mine he was in was worker-owned and operated, and the men had accepted for themselves a sort of timbering they probably would not have let a mining company get away with.  It made me understand why sometimes an adversarial process is a good thing.

    BTW, in an anti-union age, there's a wonderful paean to the UMW in an unexpected place--science fiction writer Eric Flint's 1632 series.  In it, the president of a UMW local becomes President of the United States, and then Europe.  

    So please keep telling this story.

  •  Waterboarding is a common terminology here (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, roses, suzq

    and people understand it. But, the black lung disease and misery of the coal miners' lives doesn't resonate here too much.

    The analogy can be made between waterboarding and black lung in that the miner experiences episodes of feeling like he is drowning and cannot breath.  Every day of his life.

    Tonnage has increased substantially and more and more mines are skirting or undercutting safety.

    <div style="color: #a00000;"> Our... constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds. Thurgood Marshal

    by bronte17 on Mon Oct 02, 2006 at 07:19:07 PM PDT

    •  My mother told me that my grandfather (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Avila, bronte17, roses

      suffered tremendously. Death was a relief, when it finally came.

      Five of his six sons worked the mines and when the youngest one was old enough, he made his other sons promise him that the youngest would never go down the hole.

      They threatend to break his legs if he did.  He never took them up on the offer.

      None of my uncles died of the disease, fortunately.  None of them worked longer than a few years in the hole, either.

  •  Any info on dust levels over time? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, roses, suzq

    Effective dust levels, that is.  The mine accidents revealed kazillions of safety violations - can somebody analyze the reports to estimate average dust levels over time?

    Black lung in the 30's is frightening - especially with the lowered rate of smoking, which is a big accelerant.

    •  There are no comprehensive reports (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Avila, roses, curtadams

      that I can find. The trouble is, in some sections of the mine, dust may be very low.  In others, close to the out-take vent, dust can be extremely high.

      Individual studies get reported but I don't think anyone has done a widespread study lately.

      And yes, smoking is a huge accellerant.  So is genetics, as one study cited above may indicate.

  •  my family (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, roses, nio, suzq

    I grew up in a family of coal miners.  My dad has been a coal miner since 1970 in West Virginia, and will retire soon.  Both of my grandfathers were coal miners.  My maternal grandfather's death was largely due to black lung disease.  Uncles and cousins continue to work in the mines.  The land around my family's property has been gutted by strip mining.

    There weren't alot of alternatives in rural West Virginia for these men.  

    Times have changed a bit, but alot of young men still end up in the mines in West Virginia.

    • Chris.

    ---- New Wave and beyond.... music with no boundaries.

    by Northern Lad on Mon Oct 02, 2006 at 07:45:26 PM PDT

    •  The best to your family. (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Avila, roses, nio, Cake or Death, Northern Lad

      West Virginia is so beautiful, yet so isolated and remote.  We used to laugh at all the pork Senator Robert Byrd would try to scoop up for his state.  He's done wonders trying to develop Martinsburg and Parkersburg.  In the next few years, they'll finish building off a major east-west corridor. We'll see if that begins a wave of much-needed economic development.

      While those mines provide good jobs, they're devastating to the environment.

      •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I agree, I love West Virginia.  I visit as much as I can. I grew up around Morgantown, which is probably the most stable region of the state economically.  The Morgantown area is really thriving, but most of the state remains depressed.

        I think the east-west corridor will help.

        • Chris

        ---- New Wave and beyond.... music with no boundaries.

        by Northern Lad on Mon Oct 02, 2006 at 09:10:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  My grandfather also passed from (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, roses, nio, suzq

    black lung in 1965. My grandma never got a dime and lived a hard scrabble life as a janitor at the middle school until senile dementia robbed her of her mind and freedom.

    I remember grandad coming home from the mine and showering in 'his' shower-stall on the back porch. The plastic shower curtain only came down to his knees and I could watch the black water running off his ankles before circling the drain. I remember him hacking and coughing, spitting large, black, gelatinous, balls of sputum...working harder every year to get his breath.

    My mother only finished eigth grade but she loved to read and she lovingly passed that on to me, determined that I would have a better life. I was the first kid in the family to get a college degree of any kind and the fact that I ended up with a doctorate was to them (and sometimes to me) incomprehensible.

    My white shirt will always have a blue collar. I love them and I miss them. They were honest, loyal, funny, generous, and loving.

    More importantly, if there are some greedy bastards letting this happen all over again in this day and age....I cannot write the words I feel.

    Thank you for sharing this...its means more than you know.

  •  mine story (0+ / 0-)

    my dad's family had many coal miners in its ranks, most are dead, including my grandfather whom I never met.  My dad worked as a coal miner and was sure that he wouldn't outlive his ancestors who never made it past 60.  My mom made him get a different job when I was little.  Five or so years later the mine he worked at had its worst disaster, killing the crew that he had once been a part.  My parents decision to not stay in that hereditary occupation saved his life twice.  His lungs are fine and he's exceeded his father and grandfather's lifespan by over 10 years.  

    Cheers to the miners and the work they do.  Jeers to black lung and heart disease.  Cheers to my parents who struggled for years financially as a result of their decision (miners made a fortune at a time when everyone else struggled) but it has worked out for the best and now they are about to receive the benefit of sharing a retirement together.  Now if only my mom would quit smoking she could extend her life as well.

  •  I wish I had seen this great Diary ... (0+ / 0-)

    ...before it scrolled away. Thanks to the Rescue Rangers I get to see it anyway.

    My grandfather died in 1979 from black lung's disease. Eleven years underground, 27 as a UMW organizer. I miss you, grandpa.

  •  Bush's first act in office (0+ / 0-)

    was to tear up the OSHA Ergonomics Standard which Clinton had signed into law. Since then, over 200,000 American workers have been injured/disabled from what should have been PREVENTABLE incidents.

    For anyone who doubts the difference between Dems and GOP, just look at their Party Platforms. GOP favors big corporations over workers, public, safety, environment every time.

    Yes, please keep this story alive.

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