Coal Tattoo

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has gotten a bit of attention lately for his statements that there’s no need for tougher federal coal-dust regulations because, the good senator claims, the coal industry has already done “a pretty good job” of reducing the incidence of black lung.

But a soon-to-be published study by researchers at West Virginia University shows how wrong Sen. Paul is. The study, due out soon in the peer-reviewed journal Chest, concludes:

Contemporary occupational dust exposures have resulted over the last decade in rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis and massive fibrosis in relatively young West Virginia coal miners, leading to important lung dysfunction and premature death.

Translation? Coal miners who are working in dust levels that are currently legal in this country are contracting and dying from serious lung diseases caused by their exposure to those legal levels of coal dust.

Longtime black lung doctor Edward L. Petsonk discussed his latest study (which he authored with W. Alex Wade and others) yesterday at the Wheeling Jesuit University 4th Annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium here in Charleston.

According to the publicly available abstract, and Dr. Petsonk’s presentation yesterday, the study looked at 138 miners with progressive massive fibrosis whose claimed were approved by the West Virginia State Occupational Pneumoconiosis Board between January 2000 and December 2009. Researchers found:

Progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), a complication of CWP, developed in 138 West Virginia coal miners at a mean age of 52.6 years after an average of 30 years work tenure. The time of progression averaged 12.2 years from the last normal chest film until PMF was detected.

Lung function declined sharply in both smokers and nonsmokers … The Board has confirmed 21 deaths in this group. The most common job activities were operating continuous mining machines (41%) and roof bolting (19%). Virtually all of these miners’ dust exposures occurred after the implementation of current Federal dust regulations.

As we’ve reported before, Dr. Petsonk is among the public health professionals who have supported the Obama administration’s effort to end black lung disease, which is on the rise after years of decline following passage of the 1969 law.

After discussing his new study, he reminded those of us attending the Wheeling Jesuit Symposium that black lung hasn’t gone away:

It’s still happening. There is a problem with miners’ health, and it is a current problem. This is no longer something that we can just sit on our hands about.