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What Is Black Lung?

An investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found federal regulators and the mining industry are failing to protect miners from the excessive toxic coal mine dust that causes black lung. The disease is now being diagnosed in younger miners and evolving more quickly to complicated stages.

Progression Of The Disease

Coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung, is a disease caused by inhaling coal mine dust. The advanced form, referred to as complicated, is also known as progressive massive fibrosis. The accumulation of the dust particles in the lungs causes breathing complications. Those diagnosed with the simple form of the disease may not notice any symptoms, but as the disease progresses, a cough and shortness of breath develops, as well as moderate to severe airway obstruction decreasing quality of life. The disease is diagnosed through chest X-rays and breathing tests.


Black Lung Costs Taxpayers Billions

Miners diagnosed with coal workers' pneumoconiosis are eligible for compensation. Coal mining companies routinely challenge diagnoses, but since 1970, government and industry have paid out more than $45 billion in compensation (through FY 2011):

$29 billion

Black lung benefits paid directly from the federal Treasury

$16 billion

Benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is funded by excise taxes on coal

$97 million

Estimated benefits paid directly by coal companies or their insurers in just the last three years, not including medical benefits

Source: Mine Safety and Health Administration

Why is it coming back?

1) Government And Industry Failures

Strict limits on coal dust exposure were set in 1969, but loopholes permit companies to expose miners to excessive dust. Compliance depends on the industry's self-policing, but enforcement is mixed and many miners report routine manipulation of sampling that fools federal inspectors.

2) Increased Hours And Production Pressure

Greater demand and higher coal prices forced miners to work harder and longer. The average workweek grew 11 hours in the last 30 years. In 2010, production was triple what it was when new coal dust limits were put in place.

3) Efficient Technology

Mining machines are more powerful and efficient, cutting through coal seams laced with the more toxic silica-bearing quartz and sandstone.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
Alicia Cypress