"Rate of black Lung Disease among miners may be 10 times higher than reported" PBS NewsHour 12/16/2016
SUMMARY: Lung disease is a well-known deadly consequence of working in the coal industry. But a new NPR study finds miners are suffering from the most advanced form of the disease at a rate ten times higher than the government has reported. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with NPR's Howard Berkes about the causes of this late-stage lung disease, possibilities for treatment and why it's been direly underestimated.
HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour): For the past five years, the government has reported just under 100 cases of complicated black Lung disease, which is also called progressive massive fibrosis. But a new NPR investigation found nearly 1,000 cases in nearly the same time from clinic reports in four states — Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The extent of the problem has stunned a number of researchers and experts who work with miners as well. One of the miners diagnosed with black lung and profiled in the NPR stories — Mackie Branham — spoke of just how difficult it is for him to breathe and his ill health. But he said mining was in his blood.
MACKIE BRANHAM, Diagnosed With Black Lung: Takes a lot of pressure in my chest at all times. I've never been scared to death. It don't bother me a bit. It's just I won't see my kids grow up. But if I had it to do over, I would do it again. If that's what it took to provide for my family.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Howard Berkes has been uncovering this in a two- part series that concludes tonight on “All Things Considered” (NPR show) and he joins me now from Salt Lake City.
Howard, it is so difficult to hear that man struggling to breathe, and it's also hard to reconcile how he says he would do this again because this is what he would do for his family, even though the health challenges that he and so many people in this community are facing.
HOWARD BERKES, NPR: It's so common to hear that. Miners want to go back to work. Mackie Branham told me if he could get a lung transplant tomorrow, he hopes he could go back to work, which is not going to happen. But mining, as he said, is in his blood. It's part of the local culture, local history. Generations of families mine and it really is about the only decent job in most parts of Appalachia.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Let's talk about the gap between the numbers here, the numbers the government documented, and the numbers you're able to uncover in your investigation. What accounts for this?
HOWARD BERKES: Well, first of all, it's the limitations on government researchers. This is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and they track black lung disease by bringing in miners for x-rays. But they're limited by law to only testing working miners (number one) and the x-rays are voluntary (number two).
So, they miss non-working miners, people who've retired, and they're also missing a huge segment, most miners, really, who avoid getting tested because they fear if there's a positive test for black lung, somehow their mining company will figure out and they will lose their jobs.