Black lung, a scourge of the past, still plagues Illinois mines – by Kari Lydersen (Energy News Network – July 14, 2021)


When Robert Cohen learned about black lung disease as a medical student, he assumed it was a relic of the past. “I thought it was something that happened in the times of Émile Zola” — whose 1885 book “Germinal” chronicled the horrors of France’s coal industry. “I didn’t think I’d see it in my practice.”

Almost four decades later, he still treats miners from downstate Illinois, their lungs scarred from breathing coal dust. They trek up to Chicago, sometimes looking out of place in the sleek hospital waiting room on Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast, where Cohen sees patients.

“The nurses love them, they are so down to earth,” said Cohen, who also founded a black lung clinic at Chicago’s public county hospital, serving miners from around the region, including many who had migrated to Chicago from Appalachia after mines there closed.

Coal mining has become exponentially safer in recent decades, with far fewer miners dying on the job than at any point in history. However, an ancient and fatal scourge continues to take a toll beyond the workplace.

Black lung cases have steadily increased and even spiked in recent years in Appalachia, as documented by researchers including Cohen and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is a clinical professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and director of the Mining Education and Research Center.

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