Black lung disease is the common name for coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP) or anthracosis, a lung disease of older workers in the coal industry caused by inhalation, over many years, of small amounts of coal dust.
The risk of having black lung disease is directly related to the amount of dust inhaled over the years; the disease typically affects workers over age 50.
Its common name comes from the fact that the inhalation of heavy deposits of coal dust makes miners lungs look black instead of a healthy pink. Although people who live in cities often have some black deposits in their lungs from polluted air, coal miners have much more extensive deposits.
In the years since the federal government has regulated dust levels in coal mines, the number of cases of black lung disease has fallen sharply. Since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, average dust levels have fallen from 8.0 mg per cubic meter to the current standard of 2.0 mg per cubic meter. The 1969 law also set up a black lung disability benefits program to compensate coal miners who have been disabled by on-the-job dust exposure.
Despite the technology available to control the hazard, however, miners still run the risk of developing this lung disease. The risk is much lower today, however; fewer than 10% of coal miners have any x ray evidence of coal dust deposits. When there is such evidence, it often shows up as only small black spots less than 0.4 in. (1 cm) in diameter, and may have been caused by smoking rather than coal dust. This condition is called "simple CWP" and does not lead to symptoms or disability.
Since the particles of fine coal dust, which a miner breathes when he is in the mines, cannot be destroyed within the lungs or removed from them, they build up. Eventually, this build up causes thickening and scarring, making the lungs less efficient in supplying oxygen to the blood.
The primary symptom of the disease is shortness of breath, which gradually gets worse as the disease progresses. In severe cases, the patient may develop cor pulmonale, an enlargement and strain of the right side of the heart caused by chronic lung disease. This may eventually cause right-sided heart failure.
Some patients develop emphysema (a disease in which the tiny air sacs in the lungs become damaged, leading to shortness of breath, and respiratory and heart failure) as a complication of black lung disease. Others develop a severe type of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis, in which damage continues in the upper parts of the lungs even after exposure to the dust has ended. Scientists aren't sure what causes this serious complication. Some think that it may be due to the breathing of a mixture of coal and silica dust that is found in certain mines. Silica is far more likely to lead to scarring than coal dust alone.
Black lung disease can be diagnosed by checking a patient's history for exposure to coal dust, followed by a chest x ray to discover if the characteristic spots in the lungs caused by coal dust are present. A pulmonary function test may aid in diagnosis.
X rays can detect black lung disease before it causes any symptoms. If exposure to the dust is stopped at that point, progression of the disease may be prevented.
There is no treatment or cure for this condition, although it is possible to treat complications such as lung infections and cor pulmonale. Further exposure to coal dust must be stopped.
Those miners with simple CWP can lead a normal life. However, patients who develop black lung disease at an early age, or who have progressive massive fibrosis, have a higher risk of premature death.
The only way to prevent black lung disease is to avoid long-term exposure to coal dust. Coal mines may help prevent the condition by lowering coal dust levels and providing protective clothes to coal miners.
A light micrograph of a human lung containing particles of inspired coal dust (anthracosis). The black masses shown are groups of coal dust particles.