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Fact-check: Are Black Lung Cases at a 25-year High?

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Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 31 years, takes a break while operating a continuous miner machine in a coal mine roughly 40-inches-high, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Welch, W.Va. Photo: David Goldman/AP Photo

Are cases of black lung disease, a scourge of the coal-mining industry, more numerous today than in recent memory? That’s the message of a joint press release by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Black lung disease, also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by dusts that are inhaled and deposited in the lungs, which can create scar tissue that makes it more difficult to breathe. The condition can be prevented with appropriate respiratory protection, but once it develops, there is no cure, according to the American Lung Association.

The senators’ statement touted legislation to help with the early detection of black lung disease. The legislation requires the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to submit a report to Congress on ways to boost outreach efforts to increase participation in the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. (We’re checking Manchin rather than Capito because he was the one quoted citing this particular statistic in the news release.)

The press release, posted on Manchin’s website on Aug. 23, 2018, said, “Black lung cases are at a 25-year high, and with today’s technology and our knowledge of this disease, that is simply unacceptable.”

Is this correct? We took a closer look.

The black lung study

The news release from Manchin and Capito cites a study published by the American Journal of Public Health. The study was produced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Morgantown, W.Va. Researchers used radiographs collected from 1970 to 2017 to determine the ebb and flow of the disease.

The study found that not only have black lung cases increased but also that their prevalence will likely be reflected in future trends of such conditions as progressive massive fibrosis, which refers to masses in the upper pulmonary lobes of the lungs.

Here are three charts from the study showing, from left to right, the prevalence of black lung in the United States as a whole; the prevalence in central Appalachia, defined as Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia; and the prevalence in the United States outside of central Appalachia.

These charts show that around 1970, the prevalence of black lung was far higher than it is today — about 30 percent of miners with the longest tenures. That rate fell steadily, and by the late 1990s it had declined to the single digits.

But that decline has since reversed. Now, the national prevalence in miners with 25 years or more of tenure exceeds 10 percent, and in central Appalachia, 20.6 percent of long-tenured miners have the disease.

Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

Our ruling

Manchin said that “black lung cases are at a 25-year high.”

A scientific study found that the prevalence of black lung disease plummeted between 1970 and the late 1990s, but that the rate has risen since then, although nowhere near its all-time high. That’s consistent with Manchin’s description. We rate the statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

Fact Check

Checking Bernie Sanders on Life Expectancy in Virginia, West Virginia

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop Thursday, May 5, 2016 at the Morgantown Event Center. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

During a June 12 speech at George Washington University, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered what he said was a stark example of income inequality and its real-world consequences.

“In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

Was Sanders right? We took a closer look. (Sanders’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

Let’s start by noting that the two counties are indeed at opposite ends of the income spectrum.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McDowell County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, has a median household income of $25,595, about 44 percent of the national median household income of $57,652.

By contrast, Fairfax County, located in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a median household income of $117,515, or slightly more than double the national median. 

So median household income is more than four times higher in Fairfax County than it is in McDowell County.

What about life expectancy?

The longest-running data on life expectancy by county in the United States is compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. We used the institute’s interactive database to find the most recent data for both of the counties Sanders mentioned.

Here’s a summary for 2014, the most recent year available:

The data shows that life expectancy is a few years longer than Sanders said for men in McDowell County — 67 instead of 64 — which in turn makes the gap for men between the two counties 15 years, rather than the 18-year figure Sanders cited.

For women, Sanders also is slightly off — there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap.

But while Sanders is a bit off on the numbers, his overall point is sound. In fact, not only can people in Fairfax County expect to live longer than those in McDowell County, but the gap between the two has been widening for nearly four decades.

This chart shows life expectancy for men, women, and both in the two counties since 1980. Figures for McDowell County are shown in red, and figures for Fairfax County are shown in green. It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.

It appears that Sanders’ comparison actually emerged more than five years ago, in a New York Times article by Annie Lowrey. She wrote:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. …

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.

Our ruling

Sanders said, “In 2014 … in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18 year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

A few of these numbers are slightly off, but Sanders’ overall point that there is a large gap in life expectancy between the two counties is solid. We rule his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Can Cell Phones, Bluetooth Defeat Credit Card Skimmers?

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A researcher holds a magnetic credit card "read head" that is used to read information from cards during retail transactions. Photo: AP

Should you be worried about credit card fraud when you pull up to the gas pump? A post circulating recently on social media says you can deploy your cell phone to stay safe.

An April 14, 2019, post on a Facebook page called “Local Jackson County News WV” told readers they can use their cell phones at gas stations to determine whether a pump has a credit card skimmer — a device that can steal credit card numbers.

The post said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Can Bluetooth sensors always determine if there are credit card skimmers in gas pumps? We took a closer look.

How skimmers work

First, some basics: Credit card skimmers are real, and they’re illegal.

When installed in gas pumps, skimmers listen for the data traffic from the credit card reader, record it to memory and pass that data onto the pump controller.

Skimmer technology has become so advanced that thieves do not have to return to the pump to retrieve the stolen information. Perpetrators can simply sit in their cars and download credit card information to a laptop.

A special agent with the U.S. Secret Service told NBCNews last year that the agency recovers 20 to 30 skimmers a week, with an average skimmer holding information from 80 credit cards.

Can Bluetooth sensors stop skimmers?

Bluetooth can be a useful tool for consumers who want to protect their information, but they are far from foolproof.

Paige Anderson, the director of government relations with the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group representing gas stations and convenience stores, told PolitiFact that there are too many kinds of credit card skimmers to rely on a phone to detect them.

“Some use Bluetooth technology, some use cell service and some skimming devices store the data themselves,” Anderson said.

Vassil Roussev, a computer scientist and director of the University of New Orleans Cyber Center, said that a “hit” on Bluetooth “could very well be an indicator of compromise by a skimmer, but it could also be any number of other devices within 30 feet or so, such as devices in other cars. More importantly, not finding one does not mean the pump is safe.”

The skimmer need not be detectable by Bluetooth, he said, or it could be programmed to send signals only at certain times.

“Overall, I would say that this tip offers a low level of protection,” Roussev said.

Anderson added that checking for skimmers is something gas station owners and workers need to do on a daily basis.

Retailers should conduct daily internal and external checks and take other measures to foil data thieves, she said. These practices reduce the risk of potential credit card theft, she said, though they may not eliminate it.

Our ruling

Local Jackson County News WV published a post that said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Checking a Bluetooth sensor in your cell phone before inserting your credit card in a gas pump may be able to determine whether the pump has been compromised. However, skimmer technologies vary, and many types of skimmers won’t be detectable using the Bluetooth method.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Are 19% of West Virginians on Food Stamps?

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A food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, on Jan. 23, 2019. Photo: AP, Julio Cortez

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently took to Twitter to criticize a Trump administration proposal on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes known as food stamps.

Manchin wrote: “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed. I’m urging @USDA Sec Sonny Perdue to withdraw the proposal.”

The tweet linked to a press release from Manchin explaining his position on the proposal, which would give states less flexibility on enforcing work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries. Manchin and several dozen senators from both parties expressed opposition to the proposal.

We won’t address the pros and cons of the Trump administration proposal here, but we did wonder if almost one of every five people in West Virginia rely on SNAP.

We checked with experts and looked at the data, and it turns out that Manchin was pretty close to the mark.

In February 2019, the most recent month for which full data is available, West Virginia had 314,042 SNAP beneficiaries. Meanwhile, the state’s estimated population for 2018, according to the Census Bureau, was 1,805,832.

That works out to 17.4 percent of state residents, or a bit lower than the 19 percent figure Manchin cited.

Our ruling

Manchin said, “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed.”

The percentage Manchin cited is a little high, but it’s close. We rate his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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