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Black lung cases hit 'crisis' mode in the coalfields

A national black lung report shows the largest cluster of cases ever found at three clinics in southwest Virginia. (WCYB)

Researchers say black lung in the coalfields has hit crisis proportions. That stems from national researchers charting the the number of cases from 2013 to 2017.

In just four years at three clinics in southwest Virginia, researchers for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, identified 416 cases of Pulmonary Massive Fibrosis or complicated black lung disease.

"We have a crisis," Ron Carson said. Carson is the Black Lung Director for the Black Lung Clinics at Stone Mountain Health Services.

The disease affects coal miners exposed to coal and rock dust.

Carson said, "I've been told by the experts the good coal is not easy to get to now. You've got a lot of rock to go through, so coal miners are breathing a lot more silica or rock dust than they have in the past years."

The disease is non-reversible and terminal.

It often starts as chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and escalates.

"When you say fibrosis, what it is is there a lot of scar tissue, so the lung instead of being like a sponge, a nice, pink sponge-like material. It becomes more stiff, hard," Dr. Esther Ajjarapu said. "The disease itself is terminal. In other words, there's no cure for it. What you're doing is number one, early diagnosis. Number two, treating. Number three, encouraging these patients to be more active and avoid smoking, secondhand smoking, and other toxins that could aggravate the disease."

The new findings expose the largest cluster ever found by researchers, and they say the report underestimates how fast the disease is growing.

"NIOSH left here February 15, 2017. As of December 19, 2017, we had 150 more new pulmonary massive fibrosis cases come through our clinic," Carson said.

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