If you happened to be a regular reader of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, yesterday’s bombshell about black lung disease was enough to frighten you.
In the paper, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that they had confirmed a cluster of the mostly deadly form of the disease — Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF — at a clinic in the Kentucky coalfields. This cluster hadn’t been discovered during the regular NIOSH routines that track black lung, and raised serious questions that the extent of the crisis was far worse than previously explained:
… Cases in this report were not identified through standard coal workers’ pneumoconiosis surveillance, and whether similar clusters of cases exist in other communities is not known. Thus, the actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.
But if you happened to be listening to NPR’s All Things Considered later in the day, you heard the results of a new investigation by the great Howard Berkes:
Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.
The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.
But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.
The reaction from experts in the field — people who have spent their adult lives studying black lung and trying to fight the disease — was nothing short of terrifying.
Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, Chicago:
I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career.
Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University:
I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health. It’s almost like I’ve failed.
Scott Laney, one of the authors of the NIOSH paper:
The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard. We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.
I guess it’s still early, but the thing I notice is that my email inbox is pretty empty today.
Where are the formal statements from West Virginia political leaders expressing their outrage at this situation? Where are the press releases demanding action?
When anyone releases a new regulation aimed at fighting climate change or trying to curb mountaintop removal pollution, the last place you want to be is between any of our state’s politicians and a microphone or camera. But 1,000 cases of the most severe and deadly form of a disease that has killed 78,000 coal miners since 1969?
Of course, nobody really much campaigns around these parts on a platform of promising to protect the health and safety of coal miners. Those days are gone, especially now that Ken Hechler has passed.
We’re hearing a lot right now from politicians and the political media echo chambers about the middle class, the working class, people who live in middle America. What I can’t understand is how it is that issues like black lung — or any number of a long list of worker health and safety threats — isn’t really talked about like it’s a working class issue.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did mention black lung, but only briefly on her website and in context of protecting the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung. She didn’t propose more steps to end this terrible disease. Secretary Clinton did talk a bit about coal miner safety, after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship showed up at an anti-Clinton rally. She expressed her support for making crimes like Blankenship’s a felony, instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison.
If President-elect Donald Trump talked about black lung, I must have missed it. But does anyone really believe a Trump administration will make tougher regulations and enforcement of mine safety and health protections a priority?
When mine safety and health came up during our state’s gubernatorial campaign, it was in the form of a ridiculous attack by the United Mine Workers on Republican Bill Cole and in defense of Democrat Jim Justice, our now-Governor-elect who can’t seem to pay all his mine safety fines on time, and over a bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
What people who are truly friends of coal miners ought to do is make sure that all of our elected officials have to sit down and listen to what it sounds like for Mackie Branham — one of the coal miners Berkes interviewed — just trying to breathe.