Courtesy of Elaine McMillion Sheldon / PBS Frontline
Thousands of coal miners die of an advanced form of black lung disease, and federal regulators could have prevented it if they had put more emphasis on their own data.
That is the conclusion of a joint NPR / Frontline study sent last month and continuing tonight at PBS.
The control system, which was supposed to protect coal miners from exposure to toxic silica dust, did not prevent hazardous exposures more than 21,000 times since 1986, according to data collected by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and analyzed by NPR / Frontline .
And while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) counted 115 cases of advanced black lung nationwide through the 2010 to 2018 monitoring program, NPR and Frontline identified more than 2,300 cases by contacting health clinics across of Appalachia.
Federal regulation for silica dust in coal mines has not changed for decades, although mining has changed. But since the NPR / Frontline reports, some call for a new answer.
A call for congressional hearings
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., President of the US House Committee on Education and Work, says he will schedule congressional hearings on the epidemic with advanced black lung disease and the regulatory errors cited by NPR / Frontline investigation . "Congress has no choice but to step in and lead the MSHA and the mining industry to act in a timely manner," Scott said in a statement.
Mandatory Testing for Working Miners
The epidemic has some incentives for mandatory testing of working columns so that signs of severe lung can be detected early.
"This is a large-scale public health crisis," said Joseph Wolfe, a lawyer in Norton, Va., Representing miners submitting government black lung gains.
"There are people who literally work in the mines right now, hundreds of them … who have complicated black lung that doesn't have a clue."
NIOSH is generally limited by law to test working miners only and the program is voluntary. Nationwide, only one third of the working coal miners are tested. In Kentucky, only 17 percent show.
Mandatory testing was far against miners because they justified that no one should be forced to undergo a medical procedure against their will. Miners also told the NPR that they feared losing their jobs if coal companies learned about positive signs of the disease.
The epidemic has softened this resistance to a point. United Mine Mine Workers Union now supports mandatory testing as long as the results remain confidential.
The mining industry regularly wants to investigate all miners at regular intervals.
"We need to know what is happening to miners in their work career," said Bruce Watzman, who represented the National Mining Association for more than three decades.
Sickness "may occur, but we are unaware of it. How today and age can any of us be happy with a regulatory structure that works like that?" Watzman asks.
Declaring an Emergency for Emergencies
Wolfe believes that the federal agencies to protect and help coal miners do not do enough quickly. He advocates the declaration of an emergency for public health and mobilization of teams of x-ray technicians to swim coal mines with portable lung x-ray vans.
"The house is on fire and no one puts it out," says Wolfe. "I think no one even tells people who are fire."
"If you had 400 cases of E. coli … they would flood the area with their technicians and doctors and nurses controlling people's health," adds Wolfe.
NIOSH has no power to declare an emergency for public health, says David Weissman, who heads the agency department studying black lung disease and testing miners. Only the health and human services secretary can issue this statement.
Weissman notes that miners with illness can look after federally funded black lung clinics through Medicare or with the assistance of state or federal black lung premiums.
"As NIOSH is not a coal mining healthcare provider, Weissman adds," We cannot comment on potential health gaps "that can be solved by an infusion of funds from a public health emergency declaration.
New technology for detection of excess silica
A device now mandatory for use in coal mines, in real time, measures the amount of coal dust in my air, but it is unable to measure silica particles in the air miners pulling
Samples from another device must be sent to an MSHA laboratory for silicon testing, and it may take up to three weeks to get results. Excessive exposure can continue for dozens of shifts in the meantime.
So NIOSH has developed a new silica monitoring system that can produce results at the end of the miner's shift.
"In a few minutes, we have a result instead of waiting or weeks," says Emanuel e Cauda, an engineer working in the mining security department at NIOSH.
The system was made available for coal mines at the end of 2018. It uses existing shelves, but they are expensive – from $ 10,000 to $ 20,000 each – and system deployment is voluntary.
The holy silicone sampling is a screen that reads real-time exposure. NIOSH is working on it, but says a working model is years away.