Birth defects study: More inconvenient facts about the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining

June 30, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

I was out of town last week when news broke of the latest major scientific study about the serious public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. My buddy Dr. Paul Nyden covered it for the Gazette with this front-page story, reporting:

Researchers found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in areas with mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining regions in central Appalachia, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study “offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated specifically in [mountaintop removal] areas. It’s significant not only to people who live in coalfields but to policymakers as well,” said Michael Hendryx, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.

Hendryx is one of the authors of the study, titled “The Association between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003.”

“This study extends previous research on low birth weight and on adult morbidity and mortality in coal mining areas,” Hendryx said.

Now, one thing we know for sure is that whenever the coal industry says regulators are getting in their way, Appalachian political leaders are falling all over themselves to issue news releases reacting. And whenever that happens, the local media throughout the coalfields do their duty: Repeating without question the industry line.

But as I’ve scanned the papers, the wires and the web, I am not seeing much coverage of this ground-breaking study … Aside from Nyden’s story, I saw pieces from John Cheves from the Herald-Leader and Erica Peterson from WFPL News.  I also saw stories from Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal and national coverage from Rolling Stone, USA Today and Mother Jones.

But in West Virginia, at least, I didn’t see much from the local media. And gosh, I haven’t seen once single public official issue a news release expressing the slightest bit of concern about whether their constituents (or future constituents) are facing a greater risk of birth defects because of mountaintop removal.

Does the study deserve far more attention, from the media and from policymakers?

Well, here’s what our friend Michael Hendryx said in a news release issued by WVU:

We found that birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas versus non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital and ‘other’.

Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods but was higher in the more recent period. In the earlier period the rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in mountaintop mining areas and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.

Is a 42 percent higher rate of birth defects in mountaintop removal areas big news? Is it a major public policy issue?

Well, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, thinks a major review of the public health impacts of mountaintop removal by the National Research Council would be warranted:

To date, the research generated by university researchers and other scientists has been effectively ignored by Congress and other legislative bodies. Thus, the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining remains legal. To help break through this willful ignorance by Congress, bought and paid for by the coal industry and its allies, the National Research Council needs to intervene. Already published and peer reviewed research underscores the urgency to do so. The nation’s preeminent scientific agency needs to be heard on this issue: the National Academy of Sciences and its National Research Council were not established to be ignored.

Certainly every agency with any jurisdiction whatsoever over mountaintop removal mining needs to acknowledge by their actions the published research about the effects of mountaintop removal mining, whether they involve ecological destruction or birth defects.

To help those agencies, and to help legislatures and citizens as well, the National Research Council needs to commission a study of mountaintop removal’s ecological and public health effects in Appalachia.

Some readers of this blog will undoubtedly remain skeptical. But let’s at least be clear about what this study examined and what it found. I’ll quote here from a handy Q and A distributed by the authors.

First, what did they study?

We compared the prevalence of birth defects in mountaintop coal mining areas compared with other coal mining areas and with non-mining areas in central Appalachia. We compared prevalence for two periods of time: 1996-1999 and 2000-2003.

Next, who did they study?

We used secondary data to study all live birth outcomes regarding birth anomalies (defects) for the years 1996 through 2003. We determined mother’s residence relative to county mining type (mountaintop mining, other mining, no mining). We controlled for birth-defect risks including mother’s age, race/ethnic origin, education, smoking and drinking during pregnancy, diabetes, and metro/nonmetro location, infant gender, and low prenatal care.

What did they find?

— We found significantly higher prevalence rates for birth defects in mountaintop mining areas vs. other mining areas and non-mining areas.

— Birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas vs. non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and ‘other’.

— Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods (1996-1999 and 2000-2003), but was higher in the more recent period (2000-2003). The overall rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in the earlier period, and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.

— Mountaintop mining in one county contributes to birth-defect prevalence rates in surrounding counties.

What are the most important conclusions of this study?

Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks, suggesting that environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates. Findings are consistent with research showing greater land, water, and air disturbance occurring in mountaintop mining areas.

Let’s be very, very clear on that last part:

Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks, suggesting that environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates.

Why is this study important?

A growing body of studies of the association between residence in coal-mining areas and health outcomes have found significant associations between coal-mining areas and a variety of chronic disease problems for adults, after controlling for other disease risk factors. Research related to infants has found that mothers residing in coal mining areas are more likely to have a low-birth-weight infant. This study extends that research, showing that mountaintop mining areas are associated with elevated levels of birth defect prevalence rates. These prevalence rates have risen in more recent years.

Finally, what are the implications of this study?

This study contributes to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies, and to human health.

3 Responses to “Birth defects study: More inconvenient facts about the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining”

  1. Shawn says:

    Just a few questions before I comment. Who funded this ‘Major Study’? Were other factors, such as behavioral, median age, lifestyle, illicit drug use, tobacco use, education and availability of healthcare, included in the findings? Were these factors used to reflect the standard deviation as with any credible study’s findings ‘must’ include to be even considered scientific? Has there been another study conducted that may refute these findings? (I already know the answer to the latter question, but I want to see if you are truly intellectually honest)

  2. Matthew says:

    Ken,
    Any chance you can get us a free copy as you have sometimes been able to do?
    Thanks

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Matthew — I’ll inquire.

    Shawn — if you read the post, your question regarding other factors that might play a role was answered. I am not aware of a published study that refutes these findings. The study was not funded by any outside group, but was part of these scientists work at their universities.

    Ken.