Black Lung Disease

Researchers believe the higher rates of more severe lung disease may be due to greater exposure to silica; likely as a byproduct of going after ever-narrowing coal seams that require cutting through more rock to reach. But silica dust is much more toxic to the lungs; but little is known about its contribution to black lung disease at the molecular level; and researchers don’t know how silica and coal or other dusts together might interact to influence the development of disease.

A new $750,000 grant from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health; will support researchers in the University of Illinois at Chicago Mining Education and Research Center working; to find out how various mining dusts contribute to lung disease.

The center, which is house in the UIC School of Public Health; manages several coal mining research projects at UIC; including a $1.8 million, three-year grant from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health, Inc; that will help determine why mine dust-related lung diseases; including progressive massive fibrosis and rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis, are on the rise.

Development of black lung disease

“They 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.

“They 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.” Go and colleagues will collect various types of mining-associated dusts from mines; in the Appalachian region including silica, coal and “rock dust” a substance apply to coal mine walls to reduce explosion risk from fine coal dust.

Mine Safety and Health Administration data

However, the researchers also will examine publicly available Mine Safety and Health Administration data on respirable dust; in various coal mines in the U.S. and employment data to see if there are any specific coal dust profiles that seem to be link; 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 expose to and this may be driving the increase in cases,” 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.”