Coal Tattoo

There’s a new study out from West Virginia University researchers that advances their previous work trying to understand the public health impacts of living near mountaintop removal mining operations (see here, here and here).

Emily Corio over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported on this first earlier today, and WVU’s Robert C. Byrd Health Science Center issued this press release on the study:

Research has shown an increase in health disparities as a result of coal mining in Appalachian communities. A new study conducted by the West Virginia University School of Medicine shows that the disparities are especially concentrated in mountaintop mining areas. Those areas have the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.

The study itself, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health, concludes:

Residents of mountaintop mining counties reported significantly more days of poor physical, mental, and activity limitation and poorer self-rated health compared with the other county groupings. Results were generally consistent in separate analyses by gender and age.

Mountaintop mining areas are associated with the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.


These disparities partly reflect the chronic socioeconomic weaknesses inherent in coal-dependent economies and highlight the need for efforts at economic diversification in these areas. However, significant disparities persist after control for these risks and suggest that the environmental impacts of MTM may also play a role in the health problems of the area’s population.

Authors of the study were Keith J. Zullig and, yes, our friend Michael Hendryx, both of the medical school’s Department of Community Medicine.

Using a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four-question survey, researchers talked to residents in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia about their physical and metal health.

Researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the world’s largest telephone health survey systemResidents were divided into groups who lived near mountaintop removal mining, those who lived near other coal mining and those who didn’t live near any mining.

Zullig explained:

Self-rated health and health-related quality of life were significantly reduced among residents of mountaintop mining communities in the unadjusted and adjusted models.

Mountaintop mining county residents experience, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than do the other populations. That’s approximately 1,404 days, or almost four years, of an average American lifetime. When mountaintop mining and other coal mining counties were not separated in a previous study, there were 462 reduced health-related quality of life days across an average American life.

Hendryx said that  this study also looked at the health effects on both men and women.  A common belief is that if coal mining causes health problems, those problems are mostly occupational related problems experienced by coal miners themselves, he said.

According to Hendryx:

When analyzed by gender and age group, although the effects were slightly stronger for men, effects were present for women as well, and trends were similar for the mountaintop mining communities. So it’s not just occupational.

These findings suggest the unique contributions mountaintop mining activity makes to negative health ratings among residents in counties with mountaintop mining activity compared with residents in other county groupings.

Hendryx said that like most other studies this one is limited in respect to a lack of direct environmental quality data:

We don’t know exactly how this affects the air and water. That’s one of the big next steps – to collect that data and relate it to human health.

And, according to the WVU press release:

Zullig said that because this study was a county-by-county analysis it is still a crude estimate and the numbers could actually be underrepresented. “The effects of mountaintop mining could actually be much stronger among populations adjacent to these mining sites,” he said. “A zip code analysis might help us isolate the effects a bit more.”

My question is … Will Rep. Nick J. Rahall take a few minutes during tomorrow’s hearing in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (Part 2 of “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs”) to ask EPA to comment on what this study says about the impacts of mining on his constituents in West Virginia’s southern coalfields?