Is Black Lung on the Rise?

Black Lung, also known as Pneumoconiosis, was once considered a rare, occupational disease specific to coal miners. Today, most recent studies indicate that one in ten coal miners who have worked in mines for at least 25 years has black lung. In Appalachia, coal miners are disproportionately affected at one in five miners. These numbers are at an all time high and it should be a cause for concern. The fact that black lung is preventable and extensive medical technology is available, begs the question if current black lung trends are valid.

Black Lung Research

Both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Journal of Public Health have published current findings on black lung trends. The NIOSH has tracked black lung disease in coal miners since the 1970’s through the Coal Workers Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP). Periodic chest x-rays were given for early detection of black lung from the 1970’s through today. Most recent findings show a steady increase since the 1990’s, reaching a peak increase of 10 percent in 2017. A similar study used radiographs to track the ebb and flow of the disease. These findings also show a steady increase from 1970 to 2017, with future negative implications on lung health.

Black lung is currently at an all-time high, and more should be done to prevent it. Black lung is caused by dusts that are inhaled and then deposited into the lungs. This means that more effective dust control methods and preventions should be set in place, as well as early detection to protect coal miner’s health.

A Steady Increase

The concern is that not only is black lung at an all-time high, but it is following a steady increase. The presence of black lung had fallen in the 1990s, but saw a steady increase each year in the 2000s. In Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, black lung is at the highest it has ever been, at 5%. The other issue is that the prevalence of black lung indicates a rise in other conditions, such as progressive massive fibrosis, the most serious type of black lung. PMF is defined as masses in the upper pulmonary part of the lungs. Black lung is preventable by avoiding exposure to harmful materials in coal mines.


The NIOSH is committed to decreasing black lung trends and increasing the health of coal miners. This includes full understanding the issue to make appropriate recommendations. Some recommendations are to improve methods of controlling dust, as well as using indicators to show when dust levels are too high. The NIOSH currently provides medical screenings for underground and surface coal miners, so that they may stay well-informed of their health. Their mobile efforts also bring screenings to areas with the highest rates of black lung.

While black lung is preventable, it is not able to be cured. Living with black lung negatively impacts lung function, overall. The disease requires constant monitoring otherwise serious consequences can occur. Black lung is not contagious, but the increasing rates appear to be. The more that is known about black lung, the more should be done to prevent it.