CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Top researchers are warning of an increased "sense of urgency" to combat black lung, but the Obama administration is saying little about any progress finalizing a rule it proposed more than 2 1/2 years ago to reduce exposure to the dust that causes the deadly disease.
In a new scientific paper, black lung experts outline the growing evidence that black lung is on the rise among Appalachian coal miners and that dust exposure is linked to a broad variety of respiratory problems, including lung cancer and emphysema.
"Coal miners' lung diseases are not only of historic interest," says the report, published last month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a respected journal for lung doctors. "They are a concern in the 21st century."
The paper, authored by leading black lung doctors including West Virginia University's Dr. Edward Lee Petsonk, urges physicians treating miners to consider a wider range of lung ailments as part of a class of diseases called "coal mine dust lung disease."
Also, the paper details increasing evidence that modern mining -- sometimes using advanced longwall machines and often targeting ever-thinner seams of coal -- generates huge amounts of dust that, when not properly contained, strangles miners' respiratory systems.
"The cause of the recent resurgence and severe forms of coal mine dust lung disease is likely multi-factorial," the new paper says. "Flaws have been recognized in existing regulations, dust-control practices, and enforcement."
A U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rule aimed at dealing with those issues is scheduled to be finalized by June, but the rule has yet to be sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where a regulatory review could take many months.
"We have no new information on this rule," MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said last week.
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.
"In recent years, the country has been riveted by stories of tragic disasters in our nation's coal mines, including the explosions and fires at the Sago and Upper Big Branch mines in West Virginia," the paper said. "Less attention has been paid to the increase in prevalence and severity of the chronic lung disease which results from coal mine dust exposure."
More than 40 years ago, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal with a law that required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's coal miners.
Scientists have found, though, that black lung 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.