Black Lung Benefits
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Frequently Asked Questions
Black lung disease is actually a collection of different lung diseases that can occur due to exposure to coal mine dust. There are many different things that make up coal mine dust, including
- coal itself
- silica, which makes up part of the rock
- other rock dust
- diesel exhaust
and other substances that get into the air in coal mines. These substances can accumulate in the lung and cause damage and scarring over the course of years, even after you are no longer exposed to them on a daily basis.
Early on, a miner may have no symptoms relating to black lung disease. With time, any of a number of symptoms may occur, including shortness of breath, cough, mucus production, and wheezing. Shortness of breath might start very slowly, and with time and continued exposure to coal mine dust become more severe. Usually, it takes years for the symptoms to become severe enough to cause disability.
Yes, black lung disease can become more apparent or get worse even after a person has stopped working in the coal mines. This also means that, even if you were told that you did not have black lung disease before, you could still be diagnosed with it in the future.
Yes, you can have both black lung disease and lung disease related to smoking. In fact, many current and former coal miners may have lung problems related to both coal mine dust exposure and cigarette smoking.
Typically, black lung disease is diagnosed by healthcare providers. A coal miner has an assessment of respiratory symptoms and physical examination by a provider with experience identifying work-related lung diseases. Particular attention is paid to your medical problems, smoking history, and history of occupations and work exposures.
Because many lung diseases may have similar findings, a series of diagnostic tests is usually performed. A breathing test known as a pulmonary function test is often performed, which allows the healthcare provider to determine whether a lung disease has affected a person’s breathing capacity. A chest x-ray is needed to see if there are any abnormalities relating to coal mine dust exposure. Exercise testing may be recommended to determine whether lung problems have affected a person’s exercise capacity or ability to transport oxygen from the air into the body. Depending on the situation, other tests may be recommended and performed.
Yes, you may have black lung disease despite a normal-appearing chest x-ray. Your doctor may have been looking for small spots or scars that are suggestive of one type of black lung disease. However, black lung disease can exist even when the chest x-ray is normal.
Once black lung disease develops, there is unfortunately no specific cure. The main priority is to keep it from developing in the first place. If black lung disease does develop, the goal should be to keep it from getting worse. Treatments for black lung are focused on the specific form of the disease that arises: for example, inhalers are often given because of the similarity black lung disease can have with COPD that comes from cigarette smoking. With more severe disease, treatments like oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation are given. If you smoke tobacco, you should stop because smoking can worsen whatever lung damage already exists.
The main method to reduce the risk of black lung disease is to limit the amount of coal mine dust in the air you breathe. Coal mines in the US are supposed to limit the amount of coal mine dust in the air. Various technologies exist to control the amount of dust a miner breathes in, but these are not used consistently. Face masks and respirators are an option, but are typically not practical because they make it difficult to breathe while performing heavy labor.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Division of Coal Mine Workers Compensation operates the federal black lung benefits program. This program is focused on providing benefits to former coal miners who have developed a total disability due to lung disease. Individual states also typically have their own Worker’s Compensation programs that compensate former miners for their black lung disease.
If you develop significant shortness of breath with activities, you should seriously consider being evaluated by a healthcare provider. Consider seeing someone with experience evaluating current and former coal miners. It is important for all the potential contributing factors to your lung problems to be considered.