Person speaking

More than 140 people from multiple states gathered at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Tuesday for a forum on the increasing progressive massive fibrosis black lung in the region.

The event, sponsored by Stone Mountain Health Services, Radford University, Virginia Department of Health, UVa-Wise and Healthy Appalachia Institute, drew healthcare professionals, retired miners, and other leaders to learn more about the issue and its impact on coal industry workers and on healthcare in general.

Chancellor Donna P. Henry welcomed the forum participants to UVa-Wise and the Leonard Sandridge Science Center. She reminded the crowd that the UVa-Wise Office of Economic Development and HAI are committed to the region and to working in collaboration and partnership with organizations to improve health, education and economic development.

“We hope this event will emphasize the importance of collaboration and partnership across sectors to address challenges related to black lung disease in our region. We also hope that it brings awareness and attention to the positive and dedicated work that is happening in our region to address these challenges and other challenges related to health outcomes and economic development.”

A variety of speakers, including officials from Stone Mountain Health Services, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, United Medical Group, and the Virginia Department of Health, spoke at the forum.

PMF is a potentially fatal disease that causes severe debilitation. The cause, according to several studies and healthcare experts, is long-term exposure to coal dust. The number of people diagnosed with PMF has increased in recent years.

Research conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in collaboration with Stone Mountain Health Services, recently documented an alarming number of miners with PMF, also called complicated black lung. These recently documented cases represent the largest cluster ever reported in scientific literature, and are impacting miners at a much younger age than typically seen in the past.

The forum addressed many issues, but one topic was how the increase in PMF has strained the 28 black lung clinics in coal mining states.

Sessions focused on medical and legal aspects of the disease, threat to the health and lives of miners, maximizing quality of life, and benefits counseling with lay representation. Organizers of the event said the goal of the forum is to support increased collaboration, partnership, and capacity among individuals, organizations, and communities to better address the emerging PMF epidemic in Central Appalachia.

Esther Ajjarapu with Stone Mountain Health Services, explained how coal is causing the disease.

“Coal is soft,” she said. “It does not cause disease unless it is mixed with silica. When coal miners are working in the mines, you have machinery and diesel fumes that miners are exposed to.”

She said masks are used to limit the amount of dust breathed by miners on the job, but it is not always possible to wear the protective gear.

“Wearing them is not really feasible,” she said. “Even though we have these dust regulations…out in the real world…it’s not always possible for them to wear this protective gear.”

She said a report showed that 773 million short tons of coal produced in 2017, and the price for coal rose in the Appalachian region. One reason for more coal production is there was a bigger demand for coal exports even though consumption in the United States decreased.

The forum also included breakout sessions that allowed attendees to better understand the legal claims process or to learn more about benefit counseling.