Mackie Branham views a lung X-ray with Dr. James Brandon Crum, who was among the first physicians to note an uptick in black lung diagnoses. (Howard Berkes | NPR)

Region’s Black Lung Rates Highest In 25 Years

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A new study by federal health officials finds the recent surge in cases of black lung disease is especially concentrated among coal miners in central Appalachia.

An X-ray image of an Appalachian coal miner with black lung lesions. (Adelina Lancianese | NPR)

Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say the rate of black lung disease among experienced miners in central Appalachia is the highest they have seen in a quarter century.

Epidemiologist Cara Halldin supervises the coal workers’ health surveillance program for NIOSH, and is one of the study authors. She said the cases are concentrated among miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“In the U.S. it’s about 1 in 10, in Central Appalachia it’s about 1 in 5, which is really concerning,” Halldin said.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, focused on active, underground miners with 25 or more years of experience. Only miners who participated in the surveillance program were included, Halldin said, so it is possible that the rates of black lung could be much higher.

The disease is caused by exposure to coal dust, which federal regulations require the mining industry to control.

“But this much disease suggests that miners are being exposed to way too much dust,” Halldin said.

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences called for a “fundamental shift” in the way the mining industry monitors and controls coal dust.

Last week, federal prosecutors brought felony charges against eight employees at two Kentucky coal mines for falsifying dust monitoring results.

NPR’s Howard Berkes contributed to this story.