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Exposure to toxic rock dust appears to be “the main driving force” behind a recent outbreak of severe black lung disease among coal miners, according to the results of a new study. Lawmakers have debated and failed to adequately regulate dust for decades.
The study, which examined the lungs of modern miners and compared them to miners who worked decades ago, provides the first evidence of its kind that silica dust is responsible for the rising tide of advanced disease, including included among the Appalachian miners.
“It’s irrefutable proof,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois at the Chicago School of Public Health. Cohen says so far there has been indirect evidence for the link, but his study went further – testing lung tissue samples for the concentration of silica particles.
“It turned out we were right. The disease pattern was very, very consistent with the silica,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s study specifically looked at contemporary miners with severe disease and what was lodged in their lungs, compared to older workers who also had severe lung disease.
Among their findings was that the most contemporary workers – those born after 1930 – had more silica in their lungs than miners born between 1910 and 1930.
Cohen’s work supports the findings of a joint investigation by NPR and the PBS show Frontline published in 2018.
NPR and Frontline found thousands of recent cases of the severe disease, known as complicated black lung or progressive massive fibrosis, in just five Appalachian states. Among them were miners in their 30s who experienced rapid progression to advanced lung disease.
By analyzing decades of federal regulatory data, NPR and Frontline found thousands of cases where miners were working amid dangerous levels of silica. Additionally, the investigation found that federal regulators knew about the excessive and toxic exposures to mining dust, but failed to act – retaining an old regulatory standard for mining dust that does not directly address silica. .
Silica exposure comes from miners cutting sandstone when mining coal, which has become more common in recent decades as larger coal deposits have been depleted in Appalachia. As the mining machines work, the quartz in the sandstone changes into sharp silica particles that are easily inhaled and can lodge in the lungs permanently.
Cohen and others are calling on the federal government to toughen Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations on silica dust in mines.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil E. Roberts told NPR in a statement that the study “proves what we already know, that silica is a leading cause of the rise in cases of progressive massive fibrosis.
“I testified before Congress in 2019 on this exact issue and nothing was done,” Roberts said. “Now there is no excuse. The MSHA must act to enforce a silica standard to protect today’s miners. Failure to act puts the lives of thousands at risk.”
Shortly after President Biden took office, the Department of Labor’s inspector general said the 50-year-old MSHA standard for regulating silica dust was “outdated” and difficult to enforce.
MSHA mining regulators said they are studying a possible update to the regulations, which remain less stringent than the silica standard for other industries.
“I’ve heard good things from the Biden administration,” Cohen says, “but we would really like to push this through as long as we have good data and political motivation to do so.”
For its part, the National Mining Association, a trade association for mining companies and equipment manufacturers, argued that the amount of silica found in mine dust samples has declined in recent years and urged regulators to authorize mining companies to use personal protective equipment. as a strategy to comply with any new silica standard.