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UBB findings indicate resurgence of black lung

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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.

West Virginia recorded the second-most black lung deaths of any state, with more than 1,800 during that period, according to NIOSH. That compares to 87 miners killed in on-the-job accidents in that same time, according to federal data.

One goal of the 1969 federal coal-mine safety law was to eliminate black lung. But scientists have found that the disease is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of an alarming incidence of the disease among younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.

On Thursday, a new study by NIOSH experts confirmed the agency's previous conclusions that black lung is on the rise in Appalachia.

"Although it was previously well established, we noted again that the geographic hot spots and increasing prevalence of pneumoconiosis among coal miners could only be attributed to inhalation of unsafe amounts of coal mine dusts, and could not be attributed to age, smoking, other diseases or background radiographic abnormalities," NIOSH researchers A. Scott Laney and Michael D. Attfield said in their paper, published by the American Journal of Public Health.

Last year, a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette, documented widespread industry cheating on coal-dust controls and repeated inaction by regulators to try to end the disease.

After the Upper Big Branch Disaster, miners who worked at the Raleigh County operation testified that falsification of dust sampling used to enforce federal black lung protections was common at the mine.

In its final report on the disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded, "The incidence of disease found in these miners clearly demonstrates that dust control practices at UBB and other mines where the miners worked did not provide adequate protection against black lung."

In a budget document submitted to Congress last month, MSHA said agency officials would "take aggressive action" in the coming year to reduce miners' exposure to coal dust.

MSHA's 103-page budget document noted that the agency's strategy included "enhanced enforcement, education and training, and health outreach." MSHA promised special dust inspections and a review to ensure mine operators are properly monitoring dust levels in work areas.

But the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to comment on whether it's making progress toward finalizing an October 2010 rule aimed at tightening coal-dust limits and eliminating black lung.

The rule is scheduled to be finalized by June, but a final version has yet to be sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where a regulatory review could take many months.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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