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Doubling of black lung's prevalence “shocking and disturbing,” UMWA's Roberts says

September 13, 2007

CONTACT:    Phil Smith     703-208-7241
      Dr. Robert Cohen      312-864-2901

Data just released by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that indicates the prevalence of coal workers pneumoconiosis - or black lung disease - “has doubled nationwide over the past five  years demonstrates a “shocking and disturbing trend that must be investigated and must be reversed,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said today.

“Black lung is a preventable disease that was supposed to be on the way out after the passage of the 1969 Mine Safety and Health Act,” Roberts said. “That Act contained a respirable dust standard that all the experts said would be low enough to prevent miners from getting this horrible disease. But now what we’re seeing is a trend upward in the prevalence of the disease among miners who began working in the industry after that Act was passed.  

“This is happening for one of two reasons,” Roberts said. “Either the respirable dust standard is not being enforced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), or the standard is still too high. It's likely to be the result of a combination of both factors.

“But whatever the reason is, we're on the path to seeing thousands of miners afflicted with black lung years after we were assured that the disease was on its way out,” Roberts said. “That is unacceptable and we demand not just answers as to why it's happening, but action on the part of our government to stop it.”  

The 1969 Act limited respirable dust exposure to 2 milligrams per cubic foot of air. The recently released NIOSH data shows that prevalence of miners with symptoms of black lung bottomed out in 1999, but has since risen for miners with more than 20 years of experience working in underground mines. The level for miners with 25 or more years of underground experience has risen from just under five percent to nearly ten percent, while the level for miners with 20-24 years of experience has risen from about two percent to nearly six percent. The data was developed through NIOSH's National Coal Workers X-ray Surveillance program.  

The data was presented on Sept. 11 in Wheeling, W. Va., at the annual meeting of the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics, the coalition of federally funded clinics that treat black lung disease.   Dr. Robert Cohen, Medical Director of the coalition, said that, "This data is extremely alarming. This report covers black lung prevalence nationally, and follows recent NIOSH reports of "hotspots" of rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis and advanced pneumoconiosis.

“In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor presented data at our meeting that large numbers of miners who worked only after passage of the Act are receiving compensation for the most advanced form of the disease, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF),” Cohen said. “437 cases of PMF have been found by DOL since 2001. Clearly something is wrong with the control of respirable coal mine dust in our nation's mines.

“Given the lag time between exposure and discovery of disease, these findings are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg,” Cohen said. “We should not be seeing this prevalence rate or this type of advanced disease in the 21st century."  

“At a time when we are seeing increased levels of safety issues in America's coal mines and rising fatalities, now comes this news about increasing prevalence of black lung,” Roberts said. “The UMWA has long and tragic experience with health and safety inadequacies in the nation's coal mines. We know what this means, because we've seen it before.

“We know that when tough laws are stringently enforced, health and safety gets better,” Roberts said. “When they aren't, we begin to see patterns like we're seeing today. This new data only serves to heighten our concerns about what kind of job MSHA has been and is doing to keep miners safe and healthy on the job.”  

Legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year to address continuing safety and health issues, called the Supplemental MINER Act, or S-MINER Act (HR. 2768 and HR 2769 in the House and S. 1655 in the Senate), includes language that would lower permissible respirable dust standards from the current 2 mg per cubic foot of air to 1 mg per cubic foot, as has been recommended by NIOSH. The UMWA is strongly in support of this legislation.

“If MSHA has been, in fact, doing its job in monitoring and enforcing the current standard, then this new data demonstrates the need for lowering the respirable dust levels in mines,” Roberts said. “We repeat our call on Congress to pass the S-MINER Act as soon as possible. We've seen that miners are dying at increased rates on the job the last two years. Now we're finding out that many more of them are getting this terrible disease many of their fathers and grandfathers suffered from. Miners need action now.”

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