Black lung, that historical scourge of coal miners, is a horrifying disease that gradually suffocates the victim from the inside out. The good news is the disease is completely preventable. If coal dust levels in mines were kept in check, black lung would disappear. Congress ordered mining companies to make that happen in 1969, but they never followed through. Now, black lung is making a comeback. An joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that the incidence of black lung has doubled in the past decade.
Ken Ward, Jr. writes about an 83-year-old retired miner with black lung who is watching his middle-aged sons succumb to the disease:
Marcum doesn’t have to look far to see that hasn’t happened. There’s his middle son, Donald, who, at 51, has had eight pieces of his lungs removed. He sometimes has trouble making it through a prayer when he’s filling in as a preacher at Solid Rock Baptist Church.
There’s James, the youngest. At 50, his breathing is becoming more labored, and his doctor has already discussed hooking him up to an oxygen tank part-time.
Both began working in the late 1970s - years after dust rules took effect - and both began displaying symptoms in their 30s. Donald now has the most severe, fastest-progressing form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. James and the oldest Marcum son, Thomas, 59, have a simpler form, but James has reached the worst stage and is deteriorating. [Charelston Gazette]
In a companion piece, Ward explains how federal black lung control programs have faltered under pressure from industry and labor.
Erik Loomis of Lawyers Guns and Money isn’t convinced that labor deserves an equal share of blame for the lack of progress on black lung:
Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.
Regardless of who’s at fault, a black lung resurgence is a national disgrace.
[Photo credit: At the Atlas Coal Mine, by miss604, Creative Commons.]