PENNINGTON GAP, Va. - It's a disease that's been around for as long as coal has been mined in the Appalachian Mountains -- Black lung is not a new term, but those working the Black lung program at Stone Mountain Health Services say over the last ten years they've noticed a change.
They found younger people are now finding themselves dying from what was once known as 'an old man's disease.'
Black lung, or coal worker's pneumoconiosis, is when coal dust and rock collects in the lungs. Dr. Kathleen DePonte reads X-rays for the Black lung program and she identifies the disease through what she calls opacities. DePonte says they show up as white round areas, and that's where rock and dust has collected.
There is no known cure for the disease.
Former coal miner and Black lung patient Jerry Hunley says he only spent ten years underground. He's now in his 50s; when asked at what stage his disease was, he replied, "I think I'm about at the stage of dying."
It is an alarming trend. Ron Carson, director of the Black lung program, confirms that miners are getting sicker and dying at a much earlier age.
Dr. Kathleen Deponte says she's been reading X-rays and diagnosing Black lung at Stone Mountain Health Services since 1985. She says she never expected what she started seeing about ten years ago. "I would get the information and they would be 20 or 30 years old," said DePonte. "A decade in the mines and just horrible X-rays in their 40s."
So what's causing the disease to appear in younger miners and progress faster? NIOSH, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has a few theories.
They identify possible causes as working longer hours, the change in equipment and the type of coal seams being mined.
They're seeing this trend in four areas, what they're calling 'hot spots' within the United States. Two of those hot spots are southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
In the early 1990s most people diagnosed with Black lung disease were between 65 and 70 years old and had spent at least 35 years mining coal.
For more information about NIOSH's research you can visit www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/pneumoconioses.