CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new and more detailed analysis has confirmed that most of the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster suffered from black lung, a finding that adds to the growing evidence that there's been a resurgence of the deadly disease.
Pathologists and lung disease experts examined lung tissue samples from some of the disaster's 29 victims and found "a high proportion" showed the scarring that indicates black lung.
"It's a confirmation of what we've been seeing, that there's a problem out there," said Dr. Robert Cohen, the lead researcher and chairman of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Cook County Health and Hospital System in Illinois.
On Monday, preliminary results of the work by Cohen's team will be presented at the American Thoracic Society's annual conference in Philadelphia. A summary was posted online last week, and National Public Radio first reported the results Friday.
Two years ago, the independent team led by mine safety expert Davitt McAteer reported what they called "alarming" findings: Autopsies by the state medical examiner had found evidence of black lung in 24 of the victims of the April 5, 2010, explosion. McAteer's team warned that this incidence rate -- 71 percent -- was nearly 10 times the black lung rate in West Virginia.
McAteer wanted to examine the issue more closely, and Cohen arranged for a team of three top experts to re-examine in more detail lung tissues from some of the miners who died.
So far, only seven families agreed to allow the review. Researchers acknowledge the sample is small, but they say it's a random representation of the Upper Big Branch miners and that they hope to get more families to eventually take part.
The review found that six of the seven miners, about 86 percent, had black lung. One sample showed an especially advanced form of lung disease. One of the miners had worked less than five years underground, several had about a decade of experience, and the men ranged in age from about 30 to 60.
"A systematic pathological review of lung tissue from seven relatively young active coal miners suggests a continuing high proportion had pneumoconiosis, compared to 58.8 percent reported from autopsies from 662 miners who began work after 1970," the team's conference presentation reports.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.
Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide died of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.