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Thumbs down: New study adds more urgency to tackling black lung

May. 15, 2013 @ 08:46 AM

Regulators already have waited too long to combat black lung more aggressively, and now there is more evidence that the spectrum of lung ailments is having an even broader impact on miners’ health.

Not that any more evidence was really needed. Steps to reduce the incidence of black lung were proposed years ago, but inexplicably they continue to languish. Perhaps the latest study of black lung will finally prompt some action.

In a scientific paper published last month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, experts detailed growing evidence that black lung is on the rise among Appalachian coal miners and that dust exposure is linked to a wider variety of respiratory problems than previously thought.

The paper also outlined how modern mining techniques, including the use of advanced longwall machines, creates huge amounts of dust that can strangle miners’ respiratory systems.

The lung doctors who authored the new report noted that “Flaws have been recognized in existing regulations, dust-control practices, and enforcement.”

Each of those factors can be attacked, if only regulators and the industry would do so.

One example of inaction is how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2010 proposed new rules that would pare the legal limit for dust in underground mines in half, but it has yet to be enacted. A Labor Department advisory commission recommended the change in 1996, and in August 2012 the federal Government Accountability Office supported MSHA’s proposal. But nothing has happened since. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 coal miners nationwide have died of black lung since 1996.

There is no good explanation for this holdup. Regulators should enact the new rule and enforce it so that miners have a healthier workplace and this unacceptable death toll can be brought down.

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