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Black Lung Disease

Last updated March 18, 2018

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD MPH

Yale Rosen

Black Lung Disease is an occupation-based lung disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Symptoms)

  • Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP)
  • CWP (Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis)

What is Black Lung Disease? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Black Lung Disease is an occupation-based lung disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust. Individuals over the age of 50, who work in coal and graphite mines and coal storage facilities, are primarily at an increased risk of being diagnosed with the condition. Hence, it is also called Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP)
  • The lungs of an individual are affected due to the inhaled dust from coal, graphite, or man-made carbon, which causes the walls of the air sacs to become inflamed. Due to this, scar tissue form between the air sacs making it difficult for air to move, and the lungs become stiff
  • There are 2 forms of Black Lung Disease, which include ‘simple’ and ‘complicated’. Complicated Black Lung Disease is known as progressive massive fibrosis (or PMF)
  • The cause of Black Lung Disease is the inhalation of coal dust. The severity of the condition, which can be simple or complicated, is dictated by the duration of exposure to the coal dust - meaning, for how long an individual has breathed in the coal dust.
  • The typical symptoms of Black Lung Disease are shortness of breath and cough. Continued exposure and/or a lack of treatment may give rise to serious complications including chronic bronchitis, respiratory failure, and even lung cancer, ultimately affecting the quality of life
  • At the present time, no specific treatment is available for Black Lung Disease. The patient is typically requested to stop any further exposure to coal dust. Also, smoking cessation can help avoid further damage to the lungs, although smoking is not reported to cause Black Lung Disease
  • The prognosis for the simple form of Black Lung Disease is generally good. Although not usually fatal, the complicated form could result in progressively worsening lung and breathing problems
  • Black Lung Disease can be prevented by avoiding the inhalation of coal dust. This can be accomplished by wearing a suitable protective mask

Who gets Black Lung Disease? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Black Lung Disease typically affects individuals over the age of 50 years. It primarily affects those whose jobs involve exposure to coal dust i.e., people who work in the coal mines
  • No specific racial or ethnic preference is observed
  • Black Lung Disease had been on the decline for several decades, but an increase in the occurrence of this condition has been reported since the year 1995

What are the Risk Factors for Black Lung Disease? (Predisposing Factors)

  • The single major risk factor for developing Black Lung Disease is the inhalation of coal dust
  • Individuals working in coal or graphite mines, those working in coal storages, carbon black or electrodes’ manufacturing units, and similar facilities are therefore at risk of developing the disease
  • Although smoking is not known to cause the condition, the habit could contribute to the severity of Black Lung Disease

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Black Lung Disease? (Etiology)

  • The exposure to allergens, such as coal, builds up in the lungs affecting its function of delivering oxygen to the rest of the body. The coal inhaled cannot be removed by the macrophages whose function is to remove or kill foreign particles in the body
  • Failure of the macrophages in recognizing and destroying the harmful allergens leads to coal dust settling deep into the lungs, causing the lungs to widen and stiffen, decreasing free flow of gases. It is this lack of air circulation that causes breathing problems in the affected individual
  • In other words, the macrophages that kill foreign bodies are rendered incapable of removing coal dust, which builds up in the lungs. The lungs lose their elasticity and become rigid, not allowing free exchange of gases
  • The associated signs and symptoms of Black Lung Disease occur due to the incapacitated lungs and reduced breathing functionality

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Black Lung Disease?

There are 2 types of Black Lung Disease. The classification is based on the severity of exposure, which also depends upon the duration of exposure.

  • Simple Black Lung Disease: The individuals may not notice any symptoms, although coal dust is present in the lungs
  • Complicated Black Lung Disease (or progressive massive fibrosis): The affected individuals exhibit clear symptoms of the disease

The most typical symptoms of Black Lung Disease include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

How is Black Lung Disease Diagnosed?

A healthcare professional might require the following information to diagnose Black Lung Disease:

  • A complete physical examination and assessment of the symptoms
  • Evaluation of the individual’s medical history and occupational history
  • Chest x-ray
  • Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the chest
  • Lung function test

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Black Lung Disease?

Several potential complications could arise in individuals with Black Lung Disease. They include:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Respiratory failure
  • Lung cancer
  • Cor pulmonale, which is failure of the right side of the heart
  • Overall, decreased quality of life

How is Black Lung Disease Treated?

  • Currently, there are no specific treatment measures available for Black Lung Disease. However, avoiding further exposure to coal dust will stop aggravation of the condition
  • Even though smoking does not lead to the condition, smoking cessation can help reduce the severity of symptoms

How can Black Lung Disease be Prevented?

Avoiding exposure to the coal, graphite, or man-made carbon by wearing a mask is an effective way to help reduce the risk for Black Lung Disease.

What is the Prognosis of Black Lung Disease? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • For an individual diagnosed with Simple Black Lung Disease, the outcome is reported to be relatively good
  • Although not fatal, Complicated Black Lung Disease may result in prolonged shortness of breath that could worsen with time. Individuals are also prone to the development of various lung-related complications

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Black Lung Disease:

If Black Lung Disease is present with rheumatoid arthritis it is called Caplan syndrome. Caplan syndrome is swelling and scarring of the lungs in patients who have rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disorder).

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: March 24, 2016
Last updated: March 18, 2018