Miners’ Claims of Black Lung Disease Denied by Johns Hopkins Unit

Miners and Black Lung Disease

Coal miner at work (undated photo)

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions received millions of dollars from coal companies for reading chest X-rays yet rarely confirming that miners are suffering from black lung disease. This famed teaching hospital has been the subject of an investigation for the past year by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity after miners were told they didn’t have black lung and therefore could not collect benefits.

At the center of the controversy is Dr. Paul Wheeler, age 78, who is the leader of the medical unit that reads the miners’ chest X-rays and CT scans on behalf of the coal companies. Dr. Wheeler and his team of radiologists issue reports based on what they determine the X-rays show. Those reports are then used to confirm or deny whether the miner has black lung disease.

Coal companies have relied on the expertise and stellar reputation of Johns Hopkins for the past 40 years. Even though the doctors read the chest films as part of their regular duties, the university charges the coal companies up to 10 times more than what the miners pay their personal physicians. According to past judicial opinions on file with the U.S. Department of Labor, Dr. Wheeler often testifies that the findings of other doctors who had previously determined the X-rays showed black lung disease were, in fact, indications of something else such as cancer, tuberculosis and other lung diseases. As a result, the miner’s claim is denied.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University

Over the years, judges have accepted Wheeler’s testimony and have referred to him as the “best qualified radiologist” with “superior credentials.” His impressive resume includes Harvard University undergraduate and medical degrees, leadership history at Johns Hopkins, numerous presentations and published works. With credentials like these, and the support of Johns Hopkins, miners repeatedly lose case after case.

The investigation, Breathless and Burdened, uncovered alarming statistics:

  • Out of over 1,500 cases since the year 2000 that involved Wheeler reading at least one of the X-rays, he never confirmed the severe form of black lung disease known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. In contrast, other doctors found evidence confirming severe black lung in 390 cases.
  • Wheeler’s “negative” readings of X-rays have resulted in miners losing over 800 cases since the year 2000 even though other doctors said those same X-rays were positive for black lung. That included 160 cases of the severe form.
  • Wheeler read the abnormalities on miners’ chest X-rays as tuberculosis or a fungal infection from bird and bat droppings known as histoplasmosis. Other doctors reported the same films as indicating black lung.
  • Wheeler applies different criteria when reading X-rays than what is recommended by related government research agencies and doctors who are specialists in determining a positive diagnosis. Among those doctors is the chair of the black lung task force of the American College of Radiology.

Investigative reporter Chris Hamby for the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News’ Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross conducted a joint interview that was broadcast Oct. 30 on ABC World News With Diane Sawyer and Nightline. Dr. Wheeler denied any wrongdoing and stated, “I think if they have [black lung], it should be up to them to prove it.”

Black Lung Disease

Comparison of a healthy lung to one with black lung disease. (photo credit: National Mine Workers Union)

Miners have proven it with their lives. Autopsies have repeatedly provided overwhelming evidence of black lung disease even though Wheeler’s report was negative. Acceptable proof, to him, is a lung biopsy in order to make sure miners receive “proper treatment.”

Several leading organizations have stated that a biopsy is not required by law to diagnosis black lung. The American Lung Association and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are two of the groups that say lung biopsies put patients at risk. Judges who have ruled in favor of miners have found that some of their rulings have been overturned on appeal.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is championing the cause of the miners and their families. He said the findings of this investigation are a “national disgrace” and that the deck is stacked against men and women who work in the coal mines.

Officials at Johns Hopkins have disputed this report and issued a statement defending their radiologists by claiming that the diagnoses and decisions made regarding black lung have never been called into question by any “medical or regulatory authority.” This investigation, however, was prompted by Hamby’s earlier project in 2012 on the rise and the misconceptions of black lung disease.

Whether working in mine shafts or mountain tops, in Kentucky or West Virginia or any mining location, miners inhale coal dust. It builds up over time, gradually robbing the lungs of the ability to function. In its most advanced stages, breathing is aided by oxygen tanks and the patient must often choose between breathing and eating. The lungs are so scarred that patients can only sleep by sitting up. The victim coughs a lot and becomes incapacitated.

To read more about the investigation of the Johns Hopkins’ unit and miners’ claims of black lung disease, please click on the link to Breathless and Burdened listed below.


By Cynthia Collins


Breathless and Burdened

ABC News – For Top-Ranked Hospital, Tough Questions About Black Lung and Money

ABC News – For Some Miners, Black Lung Proof Comes Only in Death

Center for Public Integrity

US Dept. of Labor – Federal Black Lung Benefits Program

United Mine Workers of America – Black Lung

Coal Miners in Kentucky

3 Responses to Miners’ Claims of Black Lung Disease Denied by Johns Hopkins Unit

  1. philip h. brandt November 23, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    dr.paul wheeler is a shame to every honest medical physician.USNEWS rates JOHNS HOPKINS as number one…I wonder who paid USNEWS…PHIL BRANDT MD.

  2. Carole Jones November 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    October 4, We have a relative who worked in the Pennslvania coal mines for 12 years. Pity the poor souls who still do this work. The really big shock was the coverup by Johns Hopkins, a university whom we had previously considered honorable. A thousand thanks. Ed and Carole Jones

    • Cynthia Collins November 4, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Carole and Ed, Thank you for your comment.
      - Cynthia Collins


We will read your comment immediately so leave a remark!

RSS Guardian Express

  • NBA Playoffs Houston Rockets vs Portland Trail Blazers Preview April 19, 2014
    If star players are what NBA fans want to see in the playoffs, the upcoming series between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers is going to deliver. The two teams had four all-stars between them, and a number of other big name players. Houston edged out Portland for the four seed and home […]
    Brian Moore
  • Students Pitch Moon Colony Plan to NASA, Has Potential April 19, 2014
    On Thursday this week, a group of 40 senior students from Purdue University, presented their moon colonization plans to a very full room. Listening in were a few of NASA’s administrators, eager to collect ideas and provide feedback. Ever since scientists and aeronautics professionals have looked further into the possibility of sustaining human life outside [
    Brad Johnson
  • NBA Playoffs Dominated by Western Conference April 19, 2014
    This NBA season the Western Conference has proven to be more dominant than the Eastern Conference, as the lowest seeded playoff team in the West has a better record than the third seeded team in the East. This story has been a common theme in the NBA playoff picture for the past 15 years thanks […]
    Eric Kummel
  • Green Bay Packers Singles Can Now Find Love [Satire] April 19, 2014
    Fans of the Green Bay Packers can now find love anywhere thanks to the latest dating web site, GreenBayPackerLovers.com. Cheese head singles looking for the love of a significant other who also who is a Green Bay Packer fan finally have a place to go. Obviously this was long overdue. Of course some would argue Wisconsin is […]
    Mick Varner
  • Separatists Reject Ukraine Deal, Will Not Evacuate Government Buildings April 19, 2014
    The US, Russian, Ukraine and the European Union came to an agreement on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland to put an end to the crisis in Ukraine. The agreement  calls for the pro-Russian separatists to evacuate occupied government buildings and lay down their arms. It also calls for the interim Ukrainian government to restructure its current […]
    Nathaniel Pownell

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 626 other subscribers