WVU Occupational Medicine physicians Anna Allen, MD, MPH and ChuanFang Jin, MD, MPH; answer frequently asked questions about this coal miner’s disease.

What is black lung disease?
Black lung disease, also called coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, develops from inhaling coal dust, and the lungs look black instead of their normal pink color. When you inhale coal dust regularly, it builds up in the lungs increasing your risk of developing scar tissue in your lungs and severe shortness of breath. Black lung disease can be severe or mild, depending on the type of coal dust, length of exposure, and how much dust is in the air. The body is able to remove small amounts of coal dust from the lungs slowly, but some coal miners are exposed to more dust than their lungs are able to remove.

What are the symptoms?
Mild cases of black lung disease may not cause any symptoms or affect your quality of life. However, as it progresses, you may develop a cough, mucus, and shortness of breath that impacts your daily life and ability to function normally. Black lung disease may continue to progress after cessation of dust exposure or symptoms may ease. Many chronic lung symptoms in coal miners are caused by other conditions, such as emphysema due to smoking. Shortness of breath increases with any heart and lung disease a person has, so the effects of black lung may add to those from other lung diseases.

How is black lung diagnosed?
We’ll ask questions to determine if you’ve had a long and regular exposure to coal dust, conduct breathing tests, and take a chest x-ray to see if it shows signs of black lung disease. We’ll rule out any other lung diseases that may mimic black lung. Sometimes, multiple diseases can look the same on a chest x-ray, so a chest CT scan may be needed to tell these diseases apart. Chest x-rays or CT scans will show us any possible masses, excess fluid in or near the lungs, or inflamed areas.

What treatment is available?
There is no cure for black lung disease. Most treatments try to reduce symptoms and boost your quality of life. Miners who experience shortness of breath are generally treated the same as other patients experiencing trouble breathing, and inhalers may be used to help with wheezing and coughing. Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy may be helpful to improve your ability to exercise and function. Oxygen is prescribed if you have a low oxygen level. Some patients need to wear oxygen only while they sleep or are active, but others need it all the time. If you’re a smoker, quitting is very important to prevent further damage to your lungs.

Does smoking increase your chances of developing black lung disease?
Smoking does not increase your risk of getting the disease, but it can add to lung damage and cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe and may lead to possible heart problems. Coal miners who are smokers may have a greater chance of developing COPD than nonsmoking coal miners.

Who should be screened for black lung disease?
Coal miners or anyone who has a long-term exposure to coal dust and has had respiratory symptoms, such as cough or shortness of breath. Many primary care providers can assist with screening their patients or refer them for screenings in their area.

Can workers with black lung disease get compensation?
There are both federal and state black lung disease programs that have different criteria and must be applied for separately.

The federal program provides compensation to coal miners who are completely disabled by advanced black lung disease arising out of coal mining employment and to survivors of coal miners whose deaths are attributed to the disease. Eligible miners may also be provided with medical coverage for the treatment of lung diseases related to black lung. Learn more about how to file a federal claim here.

Some states, including West Virginia, have black lung programs affiliated with their workers compensation system. In West Virginia, the miner must apply within three years of leaving employment at the mine. Our physicians at the WVU Occupational Medicine Clinic, or your personal physician, can help coal miners file a West Virginia workers compensation claim for black lung.

Make an occupational medicine appointment: 304-293-3693