ATHENS — A mobile occupational safety and health unit from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently visited Athens to offer black lung screenings.

Data from a recent report the institute released indicates that black lung is more prevalent than previous data suggested, and local miners were alerted of the recent screenings via a letter mailed to their homes.

The disease, which often causes shortness of breath and a persistent cough, can be deadly if it is not caught early enough. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 allows miners who can prove they developed black lung to be transferred to a position with no dust exposure.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who has been promoting black lung screenings in Southeast Ohio, was included among five senators who signed a letter sent to the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in December demanding the 1977 act to be maintained. Opponents of the act say the rule is unnecessary and imposes a costly burden.

The free exams from NIOSH include a chest radiograph, breathing test and blood pressure screening, to help track miners’ health and help them prevent and manage black lung. Screenings were held in Harrison, Tuscarawus, Guernsey, Muskingum, Monroe, Perry and Athens Counties during the first two weeks of August.

Black Lung is caused by exposure to coal mine dust, and according to NIOSH data. The number of cases of the disease have soared since 2000. One-tenth of coal miners who worked underground for at least 25 years have black lung, NIOSH reported last month. For the same population of miners in Ohio, less than 10 Ohio miners screened between 2005 and 2014 had black lung, according to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

In contrast, one in five miners who have worked for at least 25 years underground in Kentucky and West Virginia have been found to have black lung, according to NIOSH data.

“Given this increase in black lung disease and the devastating impact that this disease has on coal miners and their families, we believe that it is critical that we maintain this rule,” wrote the senators in their letter. “Claims that the Respirable Dust Rule is unnecessary, imposes a costly burden, or provides little to no benefit to society ignore the fact that it can take up to a decade or longer for simple black lung disease to develop.

“We are also keenly aware that the rate of black lung disease fell after Congress passed the Coal Act of 1969 and that comprehensive evidence that this rule has been effective will not be fully available until 2026 at the earliest,” the letter continued. “We should not abandon our coal miners three short years after the rule went into effect.”

The CDC reports that new mining practices in Appalachia may be causing more exposure to the hazardous dust, but because the disease takes years to develop, the exact cause is unknown.

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Heather Willard is an Athens Messenger staff journalist

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