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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

Fact-check: Is Jim Justice Right About a Record Surplus in 2019?

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Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Shortly before the start of the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s improved budget position for the 2019 fiscal year.

In a tweet sent on Jan. 8, Justice wrote, “Another month of record-breaking revenue numbers! For December, we had a $44.8 million surplus. Year-to-date we are $185.9 million above estimates. This is the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history!”

Is that correct? Justice’s office didn’t respond to inquiries, but we were able to find supporting evidence.

The tweet linked to a press release from the that detailed the list of revenues and expenses from the general revenue fund, and data from West Virginia State Budget Office supported the information in the press release.

The general revenue fund for December — the most recent completed period at the time of Justice’s tweet — had a $44.8 million dollar surplus, with collections totaling $185.9 million more than had been estimated. That’s in line with Justice’s tweet.

But is this actually the largest first-six-month surplus of any fiscal year in state history?

Numbers from WV Checkbook and the West Virginia State Budget Office, with information dating back to 1999, confirm that through the first six months of the 2019 fiscal year, West Virginia did indeed have the largest cumulative surplus since 1999.

The previous post-1999 high occurred in 2011,  when the budget surplus hit $159.9 million more than estimated.

According to the governor’s office, the rise in collections can be attributed to an increased rate of growth in a number of taxes including severance tax, corporation net income tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

It’s worth noting that every year, West Virginia’s economy grows bigger, so comparing budget figures across time, as Justice did, is tricky. The state’s gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, was 14 percent bigger in 2017 than it was in 1999.Our Ruling

Justice said for fiscal year 2019, West Virginia had “the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history.”

We checked the historical data and found that he’s correct going back to 1999. However, that’s not the entire history of the state. We couldn’t confirm any data prior to 1999, so it’s conceivable that there was a larger surplus prior to that year.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Would One Fentanyl Seizure Be Able to Kill Every West Virginian 32 Times Over?

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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, “West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis — PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller’s office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs — which were “concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers,” according to the the agency — represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is “a lethal dose for most people.”

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

“Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal,” Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that “is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street.” The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, “Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose — which the Drug Enforcement Administration does — then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Have the Nation’s Lowest Workforce Participation Rate?

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Gee delivers his 2017 State of the University address. Photo: Courtesy West Virginia University

Is workforce participation lower in West Virginia than in any state? That’s what West Virginia University president Gordon Gee wrote in a recent op-ed.

Gee’s Jan. 14 column in the State Journal newspaper was titled, “An effective education system is key to West Virginia’s future.”

In the column, Gee wrote, “As I often point out, our state does not have a job problem. It has a skills problem that leaves many high-paying jobs unfilled. We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

Is this claim accurate? We took a closer look.What is West Virginia’s workforce participation rate?

Economists say the most appropriate statistic in this case is the civilian labor force participation rate, which is calculated on a regular basis by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The statistic takes the number of people who are employed, adds it to the number of unemployed people who are looking for work, and divides the sum by the total population that is at least 16 years of age, not serving on active duty in the military, and not institutionalized in a facility such as a prison or a long-term-care home.

The most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from December 2018, showed that West Virginia had a civilian labor force participation rate of 53.9 percent. The figure didn’t deviate much throughout 2018, ranging from 53.7 percent to 54 percent depending on the month.

The past five years also looked similar to 2018. The average workforce participation rate in 2018 was 53.9 percent. In 2017 it was 53.3 percent, in 2016 it was 53.1 percent, in 2015 it was 52.8 percent, and in 2014 it was 53.1 percent.

He would have been a little closer using a similar, but distinct, statistic known as the employment-population ratio. This statistic takes the number of employed people and divides it by the same overall population used in the civilian labor force participation rate. In West Virginia, that was 51.2 percent in December 2018, and was close to that during 2018.

So for this part of his statement, Gee was close, and he did say “around 50 percent,” which gives him some wiggle room.Is West Virginia’s rate the lowest in the nation?

West Virginia did indeed have the lowest civilian labor force participation rate in the nation in December 2018. The next-closest state was Mississippi, with 55.8 percent. And the pattern was much the same for the rest of 2018.

In fact, West Virginia has “remained in the lowest spot since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the series on a consistent basis in 1976,” said Brian Lego, research assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.Is the national average about 63 percent?

The national civilian labor force participation rate was 63.1 percent in December 2018, after rising from a low of 62.7 percent earlier in the year.

So Gee is on target with his statement that the national rate was “about 63 percent.”Why does West Virginia fare so poorly in these measurements?

Lego said there are a range of factors that explain the state’s weak performance.

“The big picture reasons are related to human capital deficiencies such as lack of skills needed for jobs available,” he said. He also cited poor health, drug abuse, and a large number of elderly residents in West Virginia.Our ruling

Gee said, “We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

He was very close on all three elements of the statement, and he gave himself some breathing room by using the words “around” and “about.” We rate his statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact in partnership with the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.

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