With Black Lung Disease Climbing, Health Agency Brings Screenings To Miners | WOSU Radio

With Black Lung Disease Climbing, Health Agency Brings Screenings To Miners

Aug 16, 2018

In Zanesville Tuesday morning, coal miners file up to a mobile clinic for black lung disease screening.

It's a large delivery truck with a small doctor’s office built in the back. The miners wander up in ones and twos. Many are retired and they creak up and down the small staircase gingerly.

Craig Elliot is barrel chested with a salt and pepper goatee. He hit retirement about a week ago, but he gets around fine. Elliot spent 42 years mining, including more than 30 of those working with coal. He says in the early days he ran machines that didn’t have an enclosed cab.

“The fans would pick it up and blow it back in your face when we was on the coal, and you just ate a bunch of coal dust. Always dusty,” Elliott says.

Now, he’s worried about shortness of breath.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the CDC, runs the outreach program. Miners can get screened confidentially and then use the results to help with filing for benefits or to get a job transfer if they’re still working. Researchers at the agency, meanwhile, get data to help spot trouble areas.

Anita Wolfe heads up the mobile screening team, and she explains for years black lung disease cases were dropping.

“But in 1999 it was like that decline hit a brick wall, and we started seeing increased disease,” she says.

Researchers started to see increases in the disease nationwide, including younger miners that worked in small mines based more in Appalachia, Wolfe says.

Anita Wolfe doing a questionnaire with Craig Elliott before his screening.
Credit Nick Evans

At a small folding table Wolfe runs Elliott through a series of questions about his work history and various symptoms. Then he heads into the clinic. In addition to gathering the basics—height, weight and blood pressure—they take x-rays and perform breathing tests.

After he exits the clinic, Elliott explains the breath test was a little tough, but otherwise his screening went fine. Elliot and other miners will get their results in the mail in about two months. However if their tests come back positive for black lung disease, Wolfe explains there’s not much they can do clinically.

“Once you have black lung, coal miners pneumoconiosis, it never goes away—you’re going to have it,” Wolfe says. “If you get out of the environment that has caused it, if you get out of the dust, it may not progress.”

Elliott seems a little nervous at how his test might turn out. He describes watching his grandfather die.

“He died from emphysema but he had black lung,” Elliott says. “And it’s horrible—watched him die. He was living on oxygen.  Wasn’t a good sight.”

But Elliot says he’d readily take the same job again. He misses the camaraderie and working with the machinery—and of course, steady well-paid jobs for himself and others in the area. Still he admits the coal industry is receding in Ohio.

“I think it’s going backwards, I think it is,” Elliott says. “I don’t know, I just feel with technology, they ought to be able to save it.  They do every other industry with technology, I don’t know why they can’t with us.”

The mobile clinic is finishing up a week-long trip through southeast Ohio in Athens on Friday.