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Black lung disease on the rise among US coal miners

10 July 2019

Cases of coal miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, are on the rise in the US despite regulations on dust exposure in mining. University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) researchers suggest that the increased rates of the disease could be a result of greater exposure to silica dust, likely due to the mining of ever-narrowing coal seams that require cutting through large amounts of rock to access.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

Not much is known about silica dust’s contribution to pneumoconiosis at a molecular level or about how silica and coal dust might interact to influence the development of the lung disease. Researchers at UIC have recently been awarded a $750,000 grant from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health to find out how various mining dusts contribute to pneumoconiosis.

The University of Illinois at Chicago Mining Education and Research Center manages several coal mining research projects, including a $1.8 million, three-year grant also from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health that will help determine why mine dust-related lung diseases are on the rise.

"We know that coal and silica dusts increase the risk for development of black lung disease, but we don't know much about how mixtures behave and what combinations are worse for lung health," said Dr. Leonard Go, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UIC School of Public Health and an investigator on the grant. "We want to be able to create 'mine dust risk profiles' for pulmonary disease that can be used to inform policy and improve regulations limiting exposure to these dusts."

Various types of mining-related dusts will be collected as part of the research, including silica, coal and "rock dust" – a substance applied to coal mine walls to reduce explosion risk from fine coal dust. The researchers will determine the exact composition of all dusts collected and then expose mice to various combinations of these dusts to determine if there is a specific mixture that is particularly damaging to the lungs. 

The researchers will also examine Mine Safety and Health Administration data on respirable dust in various coal mines in the US and employment data to see if there are any specific coal dust profiles that seem to be linked to higher rates of lung disease among workers in those mines.

"From what we know of this recent spike in black lung disease, we believe there may have been a significant change in the respirable dust miners are exposed to and this may be driving the increase in cases," Dr. Go said. "The more we know about the risk profiles of these dusts, both individually and in combination with each other, the better the industry will be able to focus their monitoring and protective efforts."

Dr. Robert Cohen and Kirsten Almberg of UIC; Emily Sarver and Cigdem Keles of Virginia Tech University; Dr. Scott Budinger of Northwestern University and Dr. Cecile Rose of National Jewish Health are co-investigators on the grant.


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