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Government Researchers Plan Response To Rising Rates Of Black Lung Disease


Now an update on an NPR investigation into black lung. Back in December, we told you that NPR had discovered a thousand more cases of the worst stage of the deadly coal miners' disease than government researchers had reported. NPR's Howard Berkes has now found even more cases of black lung. And federal researchers admit they are astonished at what they are finding.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: In a cramped conference room yesterday in a riverfront hotel in Morgantown, W.Va., the assessment was bleak. Epidemiologist Scott Laney of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stood before a committee of the National Academy of Sciences next to a screen showing graphs and studies.


SCOTT LANEY: There's a great deal of evidence, over 500 pages of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, that I'll be submitting to the committee today that definitively demonstrates that we are in the midst of an epidemic of black lung disease in Central Appalachia that is historically unparalleled.

BERKES: Laney and an agency SWAT team of epidemiologists have been seeking medical records from black lung clinics across Appalachia. In April in Pikeville, Ky., he stood before an auditorium filled with coal miners, doctors, medical students and lawyers.


LANEY: If we come to your town, there's generally something bad going on there. And that's certainly the case in Pike County, Ky., and the surrounding areas. We're at the epicenter of one of the largest industrial medicine disasters that the United States has ever seen.

BERKES: Laney won't discuss his team's specific findings so far. But the NPR investigation continues. We've now counted close to 2,000 cases in Appalachia in the last six years of progressive massive fibrosis, the worst stage of the deadly coal miners' disease, black lung. That's 20 times the official federal count nationwide for the same years.

But at the National Academy of Sciences meeting yesterday, a federal coal mine regulator said he had good news about black lung. Gregory Meikle of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said 99 percent of mining companies are complying with new exposure limits for the mine dust that causes black lung.


GREGORY MEIKLE: The compliance rates are very, very impressive. It's meeting the objective. Have we eliminated the disease? That's a question. And we won't know. But if we wait until we do know, it'll be too late to do anything about it. So we continue to look and analyze and work.

BERKES: But Laney of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said the industry's compliance has been high for years. There wouldn't be so much extreme disease now, he suggested, if the compliance rates accurately reflected actual exposure to the mine dust that causes advanced black lung.


LANEY: I don't think there's any reason for me to believe that there's any exposure measurements on the books that can account for this level of impairment.

BERKES: A spokesman for the mining industry's main lobbying group said no one was available there to respond to questions. But questions are being asked by an independent team of researchers also gathering clinic data and looking at decades of federal records. The federal agencies involved have promised to work together to get accurate counts of disease and to assess whether the federal black lung benefits program will have enough money to respond. And sick miners continue to pour into clinics. Eighty-four were diagnosed with advanced black lung at just three clinics in Virginia in the last four months. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "CIRCLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.