WSAZ Investigates | Danger in the Dust

Published: May. 13, 2019 at 6:32 PM EDT
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It's a disease that has impacted thousands of coal miners, with miners in our region at risk more than in any other part of the country.

A July 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control says one in 10 underground coal miners who worked in the mines for at least 25 years were diagnosed with black lung. However, in central Appalachia, as many as one in five have black lung.

Danny Fouts, 44, lives in Knott County, Kentucky. He has been on disability since his late 30s when he was diagnosed with black lung.

"I always took pride in being a coal miner...buying my family anything they wanted," said Fouts. But that pride has turned to depression as he now struggles to breathe on his own, and had to quit working.

"It wasn't until a few months after that I quit working," Danny said. "I wanted to take care of what little bit of lungs I had. I only have like 42 percent of my lungs left."

Danny has to do several breathing treatments a day. He says it started off small, but the list of treatments has grown.

"Well first I started out on just the nebulizer, just the breathing treatments," Danny explained. "Then when they started seeing how advanced the black lung was, then it went to the inhalers. Then it went to oxygen."

Danny was part of the largest surge of black lung cases amongst the youngest of miners. The CDC says the uptick was especially prevalent in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Labor says of the more than 4,600 cases recorded since 1970, half of those were not diagnosed until the year 2000.

The disease is starting to hit a lot younger, too. Typically miners are diagnosed when they are in their 60s, but now doctors are seeing patients in their 30s become diagnosed like Danny was.

At Boone Memorial Hospital in Madison, West Virginia, their black lung clinic is testing miners on a regular basis for the disease.

"I usually test six or seven miners a day when I'm here," said pulmonologist Jeffery Werchowski. "A good percentage of them end up having some form of black lung."

In the year since the black lung clinic opened, they've tested more than 1,000 miners.

Though there are treatments to make living with black lung more tolerable, but there is no cure.

“We see it as early as somebody who has been in the mines for 10 years,” said Werchowski. “We see it in many of our miners that have 30 or 40 years.

Werchowski says he believes a reason that the disease is hitting younger miners is because of protection protocols chipped away or not as strictly enforced as they should. He adds new technology allowing faster productive means more dust which leads to more to breathe in.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Danny shares his story, hoping it raised awareness about the disease he says no one really talks about.

”I’m living proof. I don't care how good a coal miner you are, or how much production you can run in a shift, you better take care of yourself.”

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