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Upstate is part of multi-institution study examining the rise in mining-related lung disease

Researchers at Upstate Medical University are part of $1.8 million study involving nine institutions that will investigate the recent increase in severe lung disease among coal mine workers with a close examination of the link between mine dust exposures and severe lung disease in miners.

Jerrold Abraham, MD, professor of pathology, and Soma Sanyal, MD, assistant professor of pathology, will analyze approximately 100 samples of the lung tissues and the dust contained in miners’ lungs. Using scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalysis, Abraham and Sanyal will categorize and quantify the types of dust retained in the miners’ lungs.

“This complex study—as evident from the number of different institutions involved, each with special expertise—is needed to try to answer questions of why this severe disease in coal miners, which was apparently controlled initially after stricter regulatory standards went into effect in the early 1970s, is nevertheless being seen more frequently and with greater severity in recent years,” Abraham and Sanyal noted. “Such understanding should help to eliminate or at least reduce the occurrence of this preventable disease.”

Federal laws enacted in the late 1960s originally led to a decline in coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP, also known as black lung disease), but data from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that CWP has increased dramatically in the 2000s, including the most severe forms of the disease, such as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF).

PMF occurs when masses of fibrotic tissue form in the lungs in response to coal dust or other mineral dusts. Rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis is the term for the more recently recognized severe disease developing within a much shorter time interval than in the classic CWP. Both can cause severe respiratory distress, and many sufferers are placed on oxygen for the rest of their lives. Some patients may even require lung transplants.

A research letter published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed that 416 cases of PMF were identified in miners working in southwestern Virginia.

Abraham and his lab have significant experience in investigating environmental toxins and their health risks. His lab has called for an urgent need to better control mine dust exposures following a review of a case of rapidly progressive coal worker’s pneumoconiosis developing in a 28-year-old man who had only worked for 6 years in coal mining in West Virginia.

One of the more high-profile cases tackled by Abraham’s research team was the case of the Great London Smog of 1952. While lung tissues from victims of the incident were known to contain large aggregates of soot, Abraham and his team, examining these lung slices for the first time using electron microscopes and X-ray microanalysis, found embedded in the tissue more than a dozen substances, including manganese, lead, carbon, zinc and tin.

The study is being led by the University of Illinois. Other participants, in addition to Abraham and Sanyal at Upstate, include Virginia Tech, University of Colorado, United States Geological Survey, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, National Institute for Occupational Health, West Virginia University and the University of Calgary.

Caption: The work of Jerrold Abraham, MD, and Soma Sonyal, MD, will analyze the link between mine dust exposures and severe lung disease in miners.

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