Closed Eyes, Black Lungs

The Lifesaving Potential of Automated Information Policy

Our outdated information gathering systems leave many agencies half blind; automated information policies could save American lives and money, writes Ian Millhiser.

Widespread use of antiquated technology to test particles in coal mines is a deadly example of the government’s reliance on obsolete data-gathering methods. (AP/Seth Perlman)
Widespread use of antiquated technology to test particles in coal mines is a deadly example of the government’s reliance on obsolete data-gathering methods. (AP/Seth Perlman)

Over a thousand mine workers die every year from black lung—a horrific disease in which long-ago inhaled coal dust shreds lungs from the inside. Mine workers diagnosed with the disease die very slowly, their scarred lungs steadily losing the ability to draw breath as their overtaxed hearts eventually become too worn out to beat. What’s worse is that the continued existence of black lung is more a failure of will than it is an unavoidable consequence of working in a coal mine. We have the technology to eradicate this terrible disease; we simply aren’t using it.

The federal Mine Safety and Heath Administration monitors the air quality in mine shafts for deadly coal particles, but their methods are tragically outdated. Miners carry a device that samples the mine’s atmosphere during a worker’s eight-hour shift. Yet these samples must be transported to MSHA’s offices for processing, and it often takes weeks before they are analyzed. The damage is done by that point, and the mining team has likely moved on to another section of the mine where air quality could be much better—or far worse—than the section that was tested.

A better solution is to automate this process. An innovative device known as a continuous personal dust monitor, or CPDM, is small enough to fit on miners’ helmets and will warn them to immediately evacuate a mineshaft if coal particles exceed a certain threshold. Data collected by the device could be instantly transmitted to MSHA online at the end of each shift. Armed with this data, MSHA could immediately shut down any mine where workers must breathe toxic air.

The good news is that the Obama administration is presently considering a regulation that will allow the use of CPDMs in mines—although this regulation is presently mired in the rulemaking process. The bad news it that the government’s reliance on obsolete data-gathering methods stretches far beyond mining safety. Slow, labor-intensive data-gathering techniques are still the norm throughout government, even when modern information technology could automate the information collection process entirely.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries, the office tasked with monitoring fish populations to prevent overfishing, still depends on highly localized methods that undersample fish schools. NOAA’s records paint a woefully incomplete picture of the world’s fisheries even when combined with data collected by other nations and the fishing industry.

At the same time, a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced an advanced sonar-sampling method capable of surveying an area 1 million times greater than conventional fish-sampling techniques. Environmental regulators could use this advanced sonar to conduct surveys that are quicker, more efficient, and more complete than any existing map on the world’s fisheries. More importantly, they could use such information to direct precious enforcement resources where they are most needed, potentially saving billions of dollars’ worth of fisheries before they are overfished beyond the point of sustainability.

In a similar vein, although many states inspect motor vehicles yearly to ensure their compliance with maximum emissions standards, these yearly inspections provide only a snapshot of the vehicle’s potential environmental impact. NASA scientists have developed a better way of monitoring emissions: a roadside sensor that measures traveling vehicles’ emissions instantaneously by examining how those emissions distort a low-power beam of light. Such sensors could paint a much fuller picture of how many harmful vehicle emissions are entering the atmosphere, while simultaneously allowing regulators to identify vehicles with too-high emissions levels long before their yearly inspection.

Just as important to consumers, the automated emissions sensors could potentially replace inspections altogether, eliminating an annual trip to the auto shop for millions of drivers. Obama administration officials should bear this example in mind as they consider how to reduce the burden that government information collection imposes on the public. Automated data collection could save individuals and businesses millions of man-hours spent filling out federal forms—not to mention potential savings from reduced accounting and legal fees. Congress should also encourage automation of data collection when it comes time to reauthorize the federal Paperwork Reduction Act.

Perhaps most importantly, however, automated information gathering can play an essential role in protecting American lives. The Department of Transportation rates a stunning 70,000 American bridges as “structurally deficient.” One of these bridges—an eight-lane interstate bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota—killed 13 people when it suddenly collapsed during rush hour in 2007. Yet despite this very recent tragedy, DOT still relies almost exclusively on visual inspections to determine whether a bridge is dangerously close to failure. Worse, many of these inspections happen infrequently—divers only examine underwater bridge structures once every five years, for example.

A handful of bridges have already been equipped with a solution to such infrequent inspections: inexpensive, solar-powered sensors that provide several reports every hour on how well the bridge is withstanding day-to-day use. These sensors cannot replace visual examinations entirely, but they provide a much-needed stopgap in the years between manual inspections, and they could allow DOT to perform relatively low-cost repairs years before minor structural flaws blossom into catastrophic failure.

Government cannot govern if it does not understand the world around it. Yet the nation’s outdated information gathering systems leave many agencies half blind. If progressives are to restore confidence in Washington, we must ensure that government is capable of responding immediately to protect ordinary Americans’ health and safety. Automating much of the government’s information systems is an important first step toward achieving this goal.

Every time a mine worker is diagnosed with black lung disease, it is a failure of government. Washington has the power to end this and many other threats to Americans’ health and safety; it only needs to open its eyes.

CAP’s Doing What Works project promotes government reform to efficiently allocate scarce resources and achieve greater results for the American people.

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Ian Millhiser

Senior Fellow