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Black Lung: Why Respirators Are Not A Solution

This story is part of an investigation into how federal regulators and the mining industry are failing to protect coal miners from the excessive toxic coal mine dust that causes black lung.

Respirators and other breathing devices may seem useful for protecting coal miners from the dust that causes black lung. But federal law does not permit using respirators as a way of complying with dust exposure limits.

"[Mine operators] must control the dust first and then they can offer respirators to the miners if they choose to wear them," says pulmonologist Edward Petsonk, a consultant for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Some miners find respirators a burden, including David Neil, who spent most of the 1980s mining coal underground in West Virginia.

"It [would] get so dusty [and clogged] that you couldn't wear it," he recalls. "It was suffocating."

Neil has complicated coal workers' pneumoconiosis, as does Randall Wriston, whose last mining job underground was in 2008. He says he's one of the few miners who wore a respirator.

"I'm finding out now that the respirators that they supplied us with were no good," Wriston says. "You'd be cutting rock [and] ... the heat ... would actually burn through my respirator."

Hundreds of coal miners have sued respirator manufacturers, alleging the devices were defective and did not protect them from coal dust and silica.

"Now add to that the fact that these miners spend eight to 10 to 12 hours ... operating dangerous equipment [and] needing to be able to talk and communicate in a split second," says Petsonk. "You understand that a respirator is just not a meaningful response."

'Controlling The Dust At The Source'

Airstream helmets were once considered a solution to exposure for miners in the dustiest jobs. The helmets pump clean air down across a worker's face, which is behind a plastic shield.

The helmets "may offer some improvement but they are bulky. They are noisy," says Petsonk. Some miners also complain that the helmets impair vision.

"Controlling the dust at the source is always a more efficient approach," he adds.

Bob Glenn, a black lung consultant for the National Mining Association (NMA), believes helmets could be useful as a short-term fix "but then you need to correct the situation. That is, you need to ventilate the mines until you get the exposures low."

Former miner Mark McCowan said he tried to use the Airstream helmets after he was diagnosed with black lung. He wanted to continue working and to limit his exposure to mine dust.

The mine had helmets but "these things were junk. They had dust all over them," he recalls. He was told he could scrape a working one together from the old and unused helmets found in the mine.

McCowan says he took home pieces of the helmets and put one together "but the battery was so old it wouldn't hold up."

Could Personal Dust Monitors Help?

The National Mining Association (NMA), the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and mine safety advocates focus instead on personal dust monitors (PDMs), which do not provide protection from coal dust, but monitor exposure in real time.

The trade group and the union want federal rules that require every miner to wear them all the time, so they can monitor their own exposure.

"If the PDMs are used across the board like they're supposed to be there's no doubt that we would see less disease," says Dennis O'Dell, the UMWA's safety director.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration's proposed rules include the use of personal dust monitors for certain work positions underground, but not all the time, for every miner.

"A work position does not contract black lung disease, a worker does," says Bruce Watzman, the regulatory affairs director at NMA, the industry trade group.

The industry and the union differ when it comes to using the data from the dust monitors. The union wants sampling to result in citations when dust monitors measure overexposure. The industry says the devices are not yet accurate enough to be used for compliance.

The proposed rules for controlling coal dust do not include use of respirators or helmets.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.