Black Lung Disease

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Black Lung Disease is a debilitating disease caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period of time. It occurs among coal miners. The medical term is CWP (coal miners pneunoconiosis). It is not a form of cancer.

Black lung is actually a set of conditions and until the 1950s its dangers were not well recognized. The prevailing view was that silicosis was very serious but it was solely caused by silica and not coal dust. The miners union, the UMW, realized that rapid mechanization meant drills that produced much more dust, but under John L. Lewis they decided not to raise the black lung issue because it might impede the mechanization that was producing higher productivity and higher wages. union priorities were to maintain the viability of the long-fought-for welfare and retirement fund, and that required higher outputs of coal. After the death of Lewis the union dropped its opposition to calling black lung a disease, and realized the financial advantages of a fund for its disabled members. In the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, the U.S. Congress set up standards to reduce dust and created the Black Lung Disability Trust. The mining companies agreed to a clause, by which a ten-year history of mine work, coupled with X-ray or autopsy evidence of severe lung damage, guaranteed compensation. Equally important was a "rate retention" clause that allowed workers with progressive lung disease to transfer to jobs with lower exposure without loss of pay, seniority, or benefits. Financed by a federal tax on coal, the Trust has distributed over $44 billion in benefits to miners disabled by the disease and their widows. A miner spending 25 years in underground coal mines has a 5-10% risk of contracting the disease, and rates are slowly going up.

Brown Lung Disease (or "byssinosis") is a similar disease among textile workers who inhale cotton fibers over a period of years. There are no federal programs devoted to it.

Further reading

  • Derickson, Alan. Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster (1998). 237 pp.