CANADA, Ky.—A virulent form of “black lung” caused by exposure to silica dust is afflicting thousands of miners—and the federal government has failed to regulate it, says a multiyear investigation by NPR and the PBS program Frontline published earlier this month.
Miners get exposed to silica dust, fine and barbed particles that get embedded in their lungs, while cutting through sandstone that contains quartz to get to coal, and the result is an advanced stage of the disease called progressive massive fibrosis that leaves the sufferer unable to breathe. NPR said it identified more than 2,000 coal miners with the disease in five Appalachian states between 2011 and 2016. Federal mine-safety regulations don’t directly cover silica exposure, concentrating on reducing coal dust; mine-industry lobbyists blocked limits on silica in the 1990s. “I don’t think that the science of the causation is that well-defined,” current Mine Safety and Health Administration head David Zatezalo, a former coal-company executive and lobbyist, said in September. “We’re counting thousands of cases,” said Scott Laney, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Thousands of cases of the most severe form of black lung. And we’re not done counting yet.”