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Though the study didn’t test Kentucky separately from the 14 other states assessed, Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal in Louisville asked about it and found that “13 of 230 Kentucky surface miners tested — or 5.7 percent — had black lung,” she reports, quoting Cara Halldin, a CDC epidemic intelligence service officer, as calling that number ” a disproportionate burden.”
It’s not clear why the incidence is higher in Central Appalachia than other parts of the country, but Halldin suspects it has to do with “more years spent mining, area geology or the safety culture at mines,” Ungar reports. One study showed miners who work in Central Appalachia typically work 28 years in the mines while non-Appalachian miners work average 20 years.
Black-lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is the result of miners repeatedly inhaling the dust that comes from extracting coal. That dust occurs whether the miner is under- or above-ground. “Coal mining is really, really dusty. Don’t matter what you do, you’re in the dust,” said John Bud Ritchie, a retired surface miner who has black lung disease. “It’s real rough. You can’t hardly keep the dust down on hot days.”
The federal exposure limit for “respirable dust” in underground and surface mines is 2 milligrams of coal dust per cubic meter of air. That limit was set in 1969, along with a law that set up “a surveillance system for assessing prevalence of black lung among underground coal miners,” Ungar reports. “But the requirement for surveillance doesn’t extend to surface miners.” Haldin said, “Industry should recognize this is a problem and their workers are at risk and bring down the levels.” (Read more)