Young miners are more likely to die of black lung disease than previous generations

Young miners are more likely to die of black lung disease than previous generations due to a mysterious rise in lethal form of the disease

  • A report published on Monday shows rising rates of the deadliest black lung disease
  • Another report shows younger miners are more likely to die of the disease 
  • The prevailing theory is that miners are exposed to more silica dust these days but tissue samples do not reflect that 

Younger miners are more likely to die of black lung disease compared to previous generations, a report reveals today.

Data from the National Death Index show a steady increase in deaths among miners under 65 between 1889 and 1970.

After 1940, 17 percent of miners died under 65, compared to 11 percent in every previous generation, and experts say that increase has not stopped.    

Another report published today helps to explain why: there is a mysterious rise in miners developing the worst form of black lung disease, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), which is highly malignant and difficult to treat. 

Mining methods have changed over time and coal is increasingly difficult to get to, forcing workers into more compromising environments where they are exposed to more crystalline silica – tiny dust particles that trigger lung diseases.

But researchers say lung tissue samples do not show an increase in silica exposure.

Death rates are becoming more common among younger coal miners, largely due to rising rates of PMF, the most deadly form of the disease, but studies on the subject have yet to pinpoint what’s driving the trend


Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust.  

It is similar to silicosis from inhaling silica dust and asbestos dust.

The most lethal form is progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), when sufferers of CWP develop large masses in the upper regions of their lungs.

The studies, both by teams at the University of Illinois and both presented today at the American Thoracic Society’s annual meeting, come on the heels of CDC data which revealed staggering rates of death and disease in Appalachia, the region known as Coal Country.

One in five coal miners in central Appalachia has black lung disease.

PMF affects one in 20 in the region.

In 2014, new standards were put in place to boost safety for coal miners.

But the rising rates of PMF suggests we haven’t yet worked out what’s causing the disease.

The report on death rates among younger coal miners exposed a general rise across the board – 31 percent of miners died in their 60s between 1940 and 1970, up from 28 percent in the 1930s, 18 percent in the 1920s, and 15 percent before that. 

The sudden jump up in deaths among the youngest bracket is what’s really triggered more widespread concern, and demand for better understand of PMF.  

For the second report, specifically looking at PMF, researchers analyzed cases of PMF from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) database to see if the disease looked different in more recent lungs than before. 

The latest samples available, from 1996, did not show more silica predominant disease in miners. 

But that does not mean the prevailing theory doesn’t hold true for today’s miners: the researchers say it’s very likely that 1996 was too early to see the shift in exposures, and more recent samples may show more silica.