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Coal miners in Appalachia are at a higher risk of black lung

Black lung disease has been a problem for many years among coal miners in Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control found that the risk of black lung and other respiratory diseases got worse for miners in recent years.

Aysha Bodenhamer, a sociology professor at Radford University has been researching this deadly disease for many years and is determined to uncover the social drivers. She says age, financial and fear are contributing factors.

Black lung usually takes years to develop and many miners don’t the notice symptoms until after the age of 50. By then, the damage has been done.

Miners often believe the financial gain is worth the risk. A person who graduates high school can get an entry level job with a coal company making upwards of $60,000 a year, with no training and no experience.

“That’s the same the same starting salary I had as a professor with a PhD,” says Bodenhamer.

She also found the enticingly high salaries in rural areas often make employees of coal companies terrified to speak up about conditions or their health. Bodenhamer says there are numerous accounts of miners sharing that the coal companies are not following safety protocols, or admitting they have black lung, then finding out that their employment had been terminated. Many miners wait to speak up until they are retired or they are too sick to work, creating an older generation of miners that is politically engaged.

Those who fall victim to black lung often don’t know where to start. Medical and legal expertise with the illness is limited.

“You can’t go to college and get a degree in black lung. From a medical standpoint or a legal standpoint. It’s just such a niche area.”

Bodenhamer experienced first-hand the grassroots effort of people who are interested in this issue, coming together to help the coal miners.

With black lung cases popping up across Appalachia, black lung clinics step in to assist the miners who have been diagnosed with the disease.

Bodenhamer spoke with many miners throughout her research who said they are thankful that the clinics exist and are there to help them navigate the hardships of black lung.

Black lung clinics are funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. Bodenhamer first learned about these clinics through The National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics.

“These clinics are pivotal for the miners. They can go for treatment, and for help with their black lung claims. It’s generally a lifechanging experience.” says Bodenhamer.

The clinics provide medical support to black lung victims, but they also provide legal and financial support. The Lay Advocate Program brings in individuals who help miners navigate the system. They are not actual attorneys, but they know the law and the black lung claims and benefits process well.

“These lay advocates are far more successful at getting black lung claims for the coal miners. They help them with their claim, they go to court with them, and the miners don’t have to pay for the service,” Bodenhamer says.

From national organizations to researchers like Radford’s Aysha Bodenhamer, years of work has been conducted in the prevention of black lung. Bodenhamer said she hopes the Mine Safety and Health Administration will bring its air quality standards in line with those recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.