A research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, NIOSH (JAMA) confirms that Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF)—known as complicated black lung—is back in a tragically big way. Studying hundreds of cases from three clinics in Virginia, over the span of the preceding four years, researchers were sad to find that PMF, on decline and almost eradicated by the 1990s, is back in full force in some areas. NPR interviewed Ron Carson, the director of Stone Mountain’s black lung program as well as an epidemiologist involved in the study, Scott Laney. Carson explained that when he first opened the specialized clinic he would see single digit cases of PMF in a year. Now that number is so much higher.
The clinics now see that many cases every two weeks, he says, and have had 154 new diagnoses of PMF since the fieldwork for the NIOSH study concluded a year ago.
"That's an indication that it's not slowing down," Carson says. "We are seeing something that we haven't seen before."
Laney acknowledges that the full scope of what he calls an epidemic is still unknown.
Laney says the the numbers that he and his team came up with are still a “underestimate,” of how bad it really is. The disease is a coal-miners disease, the result of years of inhaling coal and silica dust inside and above coal mining operations. Carson says that the ages of the coal miners he sees are part of what is so distressing.
"Miners are dying at a much younger age," he says, noting that in the 1990s, the clinic's PMF diagnoses typically involved miners in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Now the disease strikes miners in their fifties, forties and even thirties with fewer years mining coal.
"A high proportion" of the miners in the NIOSH study had severely advanced disease and "coal mining tenure of less than 20 years, which are indications of exceptionally severe and rapidly progressive disease," the study says.
It’s a bad situation that politicians on both sides of the issue have failed at. The catch-22 is that the people in these usually conservative-voting areas, while a part of a figuratively and literally dying industry, still need to work and some of the only work is coal. Unfortunately, every single thing that the Republican Party does actually hurts those very coal miners they claim to be supporting. Whether it’s threatening their black lung healthcare benefits, or just lying about protecting the coal industry from its inevitable demise, the people in states affected by the diseases of coal will continue to vote for their funerals.
"They really need to declare this a public health emergency," says Joe Wolfe, an attorney in Norton, Virginia, who helps miners file claims for black lung compensation.
"If you had 400 cases of E. coli, [NIOSH] would flood the area with technicians and doctors and nurses checking people's health," Wolfe adds. "There are people literally working in the mines right now ... that have complicated black lung that do not have a clue."
As Inside Climate News reported late last year, for possibly thousands of coal miners, time is of the essence, and finding out early can give one a better chance at survival and a running start at fighting the government—and more importantly the coal industry—to get the benefits they will likely fight you on.
The companies engage high-profile law firms that in turn employ a cadre of doctors, setting the stage for protracted battles of conflicting medical opinions. Miners, meanwhile, are often overmatched because few lawyers will take their cases. Attorneys are barred from charging plaintiffs fees, meaning they receive modest compensation, and only if they win.
Over the last decade, 52,537 miners have applied to the Labor Department for black lung benefits. The department determined that only 7,252, or about 14 percent, were eligible, according to its data. The industry then challenged 70 percent of those claims, often denying the presence of the disease. It prevailed more than half the time.
This is one of the many ways that the fossil fuel industry treats the people it sinks into the ground to extract resources. Once you are used up they will put their foot on your neck until you die.
"The industry's tactic seems to be to just keep appealing until the miner or miner's wife dies or gives up," said Shannon Bell, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Tech who has studied the impacts of the coal industry on the people of Appalachia.
So the question here will be whether or not the federal government, headed by the coal-miners’ great savior Donald Trump, is willing to call for an emergency and face off against the fossil fuel industry. The answer to that question is he won’t.