University of Illinois-Chicago Researchers Receive Grant to Study How Coal Dust Causes Lung Disease

The project will explore how different combinations of coal dust affect the development of black lung disease, which is causing an epidemic among coal miners across Appalachian states.

As current and former coal miners grapple with a growing black lung epidemic, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are preparing to launch a project to learn more about how coal dust exposure causes lung disease.

Some researchers have attributed the higher rates of severe lung disease to greater exposure to silica dust, likely the outcome of having to cut through more rock to reach the limited coal supply in mines, according to a university press release.

While the issue has become more prevalent – a 2018 National Public Radio investigation identified over 1,000 cases of advanced black lung disease in five Appalachian states – there is still little research on how silica dust contributes to the disease and works in conjunction with other dusts to cause more severe outcomes for patients.

Using a $750,000 grant from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mining Safety and Health, researchers at the UIC Mining Education and Research Center will seek to fill in the knowledge gap by delving into how exactly the dusts affect the development of lung disease.

The group will collect mining-associated dusts from mines in Appalachian states and expose mice to various combinations of the dusts to determine if there are specific mixtures that are particularly damaging to lung health, according to the release.

Dr. Leonard Go, an investigator with the grant who serves as a professor in the UIC School of Public Health, said the researchers hope to create “mine dust risk profiles” for pulmonary disease that can help inform regulatory policies and limit exposure to the most toxic dusts.

“We know that coal and silica dusts increase the risk for development of black lung disease, but we don’t know much about how mixtures behave and what combinations are worse for lung health,” Go said in a statement. “The more we know about the risk profiles of these dusts, both individually and in combination with each other, the better the industry will be able to focus their monitoring and protective efforts.”

The investigators will also examine Mine Safety and Health Administration data on dust in coal mines across the U.S. and employment data to identify any profiles that seem to be linked to higher rates of black lung among workers, according to the release.

Congress has also recently taken up the question of how to deal with the rise in black lung cases. In a House of Representatives hearing last month, David Zatezalo, who oversees the MSHA within the Department of Labor, resisted calls to strengthen rules on workers’ exposure to silica dust. He said the administration expects to see companies’ compliance with current regulations “translate into reduced black lung incidents going forward,” NPR reported.

But Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, is calling for congressional action in order to prevent more miners from developing severe black lung.

“[The] hearing confirmed that the administration will not make the necessary changes to coal mine health standards," Scott said in a statement. "Given the clear research showing that today's silica standards are not sufficient to protect miners from the recent, unprecedented spike in the most severe forms of black lung disease, Congress has no choice but to take action on behalf of workers and their families.”

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