Study links poor health to mountaintop mining
by Ralph B. Davis
A study that compared the health of Floyd Countians to residents of Rowan and Elliott counties concludes that there is a link between mountaintop removal coal mining and overall poorer health of those living in close proximity to such mining operations.
The study, “Personal and Family Health in Rural Areas of Kentucky With and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining,” authored by Dr. Michael Hendryx, of the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership at West Virginia University, says that communities that have mountaintop mining show worse results in “self-rated health status, illness symptoms across multiple organ systems, lifetime and current asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension,” as well as household members reporting “reporting serious illness or had died from cancer in the past five years.”
Furthermore, the study says mining areas fare worse in health statistics even when adjusted for other factors, such as different rates of education, obesity, smoking, age, sex, marital status and work experience in coal mining.
“The results of this study add to previous evidence that Appalachian health disparities are concentrated in mountaintop coal mining areas of the region,” Hendryx writes in the report.
The study points to air and water pollution as a potential reason for the differences.
“The early environmental evidence shows higher levels of respirable dust in the [mountaintop mining] versus nonmining control sites, and higher estimates of deposition or dose of particulate matter into the lung …” the report says. “Water samples from [mountaintop mining] communities include substantially elevated conductivity and pH, elevated ammonium and phosphate concentrations, and elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and phenols.”
However, the report further states that isolating the results to one cause is likely impossible.
“The symptoms reported more commonly in the [mountaintop mining] community included chest pain, persistent cough, wheezing, skin rashes, stomach and abdominal pain, gall bladder problems, pain in muscles and joins, headaches, fatigue and others,” the report says. “On the one hand, if there are environmental exposures taking place in these areas, it may seem surprising that health effects could be so widespread as opposed to more focused symptoms resulting from exposure to a particular agent. However, early environmental evidence indicates that there is not a single agent or transport route that characterizes these mining environments, but rather multiple exposure types may be occurring that could impact different people in different ways.”
The study was released in the Journal of Rural Health this week. It is similar in both its methodology and findings to a study Hendryx authored last year that examined health in mining and non-mining areas of West Virginia.
Hendryx came under fire when his earlier study was released last year, with critics saying he is biased against the coal industry.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett did not back away from the criticism when asked for comment Friday.
“While Dr. Hendryx is not a medical doctor, he is a researcher who begins his research with a bias against coal and its extraction,” Bissett said. “This bias is further revealed through his coordination with and the support of anti-coal groups such as the KFTC.”
Bissett said Friday he has not yet had chance to review Hendryx’s most recent study, but said he is skeptical of the findings.
“While I have not read this new publication, I have read his past work,” Bissett said. “In the past, Hendryx has used information gained through telephone interviews instead of medical records or actual examinations. While the challenges facing Appalachians and their health are well documented, Hendryx’s work seems more connected to political expediency than substance.”
Hendryx’s latest study will likely not win him new friends in the coal industry, as it makes a direct appeal for the end of mountaintop mining.
“The precautionary principle of environmental science dictates that prudent steps be undertaken to minimize and eliminate risks from possible exposure,” the study concludes. “As has been previously recommended based on the environmental and public health evidence, one of these steps is that [mountaintop mining] practices should end. Absent that, regulations governing both air and water quality in impacted communities may be strengthened.”
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