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Black Lung Blues


Black lung is returning with force to the miners of Appalachia. Coal companies have fought against meaningful reforms (or even recognizing it exists) for over a century, and longer if you go back to the coal mines of 19th century England.* The only time workers have ever managed a major breakthrough was with the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which coincided with a larger move toward meaningful workplace safety reform at a time when social tumult (including grassroots activism against an unresponsive union leadership) combined with economic prosperity to create a new set of demands for working people. The Mine Safety and Health Administration made real progress against black lung. But new technologies have increased exposure to the increasingly few workers in the mines and black lung rates are rising again. The MSHA hasn’t done anything to stop it because the coal industry cares far more about stopping meaningful reform than any equally powerful consistency does about pushing it through.

*Read Alan Derickson’s Black Lung, if you are interested in this issue. Which you should be.

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  • Stephen

    There were indeed coal mines in C19 England. And many in Wales and Scotland; please note these are not the same as England. Also, there has been relevant UK legislation for rather a long time: the Pneumoconiosis and Byssinosis Benefit Act,1951, is the earliest I can find. I don’t think things have gone backwards here recently, whatever has happened in the US.

  • somethingblue

    Last sentence: “constituency,” not “consistency.”

  • anthrofred

    Ooh, thanks for the book recommendation. I always appreciate it when these are posted.

  • Allan Pinkerton

    Well, thank God that those good American Christian mining folk vote to keep those jobs available and enrich the men who, out of the goodness of their hearts, allow those poor mining folk to earn enough to eat. Not like the godless pagan commies who propagate the vile “global warming” and “pollution” slanders.

  • They really do think they can push the population back into the near serfdom of the 19th century without massive amounts of bloodshed.


    • anthrofred

      In mining country, a significant share never left.

      And yet towns still welcome jobs in extractive industries, even though the boom never lasts, the working conditions are often bad, and the environment might not heal for centuries.

      • Really? The West Virginian’s I’ve spoken to are at the very least pissed about the terraforming that goes on in their state. But then, these aren’t the people who make the decisions to flatten the mountains.

        • anthrofred

          I may have overgeneralized. It’s also true that towns and townspeople are not necessarily always in line, but lacking a solid example I won’t try to press my point here. Suffice to say, yes, there’s certainly significant resistance on the state level.

    • Allan Pinkerton

      We don’t *think* we can. We *know* we can.

  • sc

    UMWA hospital a couple towns north of where I grew up used to be a big-time leader in black lung treatment, but they’ve been closed now for about 25 years.

  • ChrisTS

    Semi-related question for anyone who has a sound guess: could inhaling chalk dust, over may years, produce a lung problem (White Lung Disease)? I have colleagues, esp. in Mathematics, who scrawl all over the blackboards with cheap chalk* and come out of their classes utterly covered in the stuff. (We instituted a ‘clean up your own board work policy a few years back because the rest of us were sick of choking on the dust when we had to clean up after them.)

    * Two told me they prefer the soft chalk as it tends to result in less hand fatigue.

    • DocAmazing

      Well, pottery workers can get berylliosis and silicosis from inhaling ceramic dust; it’s not unreasonable to think that chalk dust would persist in the alveoli of the lungs in the same way that caly dust, stone dust, and cotton dust do.

      • ChrisTS


    • anthrofred

      As to the actual question, I don’t know, and Google Scholar / PubMed wasn’t a huge help. Chalkboard “chalk” is composed of gypsum, but apparently effects on actual miners are relatively mild and depend on silicon content. I wouldn’t think classroom exposure would be high enough to cause anything but acute irritation – it’s certainly not mining conditions where you’re literally blasting the dust into your face for 40 hours a week and the air is saturated with the stuff.

      • anthrofred

        Oop, sorry, I cut off a paragraph with a random fact, so the first sentence shouldn’t be there. I only mention this because it sounds like I was sniping at Doc, which I wasn’t. Fine post, Doc!

        • DocAmazing


    • I would think you’d have to breathe in a LOT of chalk to get sick, but it can’t be good for you.

  • JL

    One of the speakers at this weekend’s anti-coal action in Massachusetts, was a West Virginian whose grandfather, father, and uncle all died of Black Lung. Quite a few people were crying listening to her.

  • sa

    Both of my grandmother’s husbands died of black lung in Pennsylvania before and during the Depression. The coal companies had a neat trick then: deny the miner had black lung, misdiagnose TB, force the miner to a TB sanitarium and wash their hands of the problem.

    My mother barely got to know her father because he was forced into a sanitarium when she was young.

    My grandmother got a pittance of a settlement when she was in her sixties.

    Not much has changed (Oh, my grandfather insisted none of his stepsons or sons would be miners – before he died they promised they would migrate – to Detroit. They all had union jobs which allowed them health benefits.)

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