Forum addresses miners, black lung advocates on growing 'epidemic'

More than 400 cases of complicated black lung were diagnosed and observed by researchers during a four year period in clinics across the coal mining region, including southwest Virgnia. (K. Roberts, WCYB)

Coal miners with black lung and advocates turned out Tuesday in Wise County seeking help and solutions for preventing the disease. It is now considered an epidemic in Appalachia. Right here in southwest Virginia, the largest cluster of the complicated black lung has been identified.

"My breathing was getting shorter. I couldn't do the work and stand up with the people that was standing around me. I had to take breaks in between," James Summers said.

Like many men in southwest Virginia, Summers took on the role as a coal miner to pay the bills and provide for his family. Growing up in Big Stone Gap, he worked in the mines for 31 years. About two years ago, he noticed a change.

Summers said, "I can't do what I used to do. I can't work a real long period of time without resting a little bit."

Summers suffers from black lung. That why he is attending a forum bringing together researchers from the CDC, local doctors, and legal experts trained to work with miners and help them improve their quality of life.

"I hope people come to the understanding that this is a disease that should be addressed. No miner in the year 2018 should be exposed to PMF, which is pulmonary massive fibrosis," Ron Carson said. Carson is a former Black Lung Clinic Director for Stone Mountain Health Services.

In a four year study of our region, more than 400 miners were diagnosed with PMF, or complicated black lung, the largest cluster ever recorded. and even more have been diagnosed since the study ended in 2017.

"It's onset is associated with the length of exposure and its severity of disease is based on the amount of dust inhaled, years of exposure, and combination and composition of dust," Researchers from the CDC's National Institute of Occupational Safety & Heath said.

Those researchers are still administering in-depth studies and revisiting hot spots to determine how to protect those still in the profession.

Carson said, "There should be regulations in place to where dust should be controlled at a much better level than what we are seeing now."

This year. with support from Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Congress increased funding for black lung benefits to $10 million.

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