Rutgers School of Public Health, assistant professor of epidemiology, Dr. Judith Graber, along with colleagues from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and other leading national institutions, found high rates of advanced coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP) in former coal miners applying for Black Lung benefits. Significantly, younger former miners (under age 56) and miners who began working after the enactment of coal dust regulations in 1970, had the highest rates of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), the most severe and often fatal form of CWP. The researchers also demonstrated that health data from the Black Lung Benefits Program (BLBP) is a valuable source of information that can inform public health surveillance and research related to coal miner health.
This Rutgers study added to the growing and disturbing literature demonstrating that U.S. coal miners remain at risk of illness and premature death from coal mine dust lung disease (CMDLD), including CWP. The reemergence of severe forms of CWP disease in 2000 among young working miners has been well documented, but this is the first nationwide study of CMDLD in former coal miners. This is also the first study to examine the potential of data collected from the federal BLBP for use in public health research and surveillance. The BLBP is administered through the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation. The researchers analyzed 24,686 miner’s BLBP records and confirmed that former coal miners continue to have high rates of severe occupational lung diseases, despite efforts by the U.S. Government to reduce coal mine dust exposure through the 1969 Federal Mine Health and Safety Act, and other measures since.
[Photo: Dr. Judith Graber]
According to Dr. Graber, “severe coal mine dust lung disease is entirely preventable.” She also points out that “the resurgence of severe lung disease among U.S. coal miners is a failure of public health measures aimed at protecting these workers.”
The findings of this study solidify the ongoing need to monitor the health of former coal workers who are burdened by deadly occupational lung disease. Without such monitoring, the efficacy of the new dust control measures will remain uncertain. Future analyses of BLBP claims data can provide needed information for ongoing assessments of the effectiveness of new dust control regulations.
In addition to her role as an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, Dr. Graber is also a member of the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Her research focuses on how occupational exposure to dust and fibers and behavioral risk factors, such as tobacco use, increases the risk of respiratory diseases, including cancer. Notably, Dr. Graber received a two-year $700,000 grant from the World Trade Center Health Program to continue her research on the respiratory aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“Increasing Severity of Pneumoconiosis Among Younger Former US Coal Miners Working Exclusively Under Modern Dust-Control Regulations” was published in the June issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.