Coal Tattoo

Well, you certainly can’t fault Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett for not sticking to his story … whether he’s gotten all the facts in or not.

When the latest study about mountaintop removal coal-mining’s potential impacts on public health in Appalachia was published last week, Bill apparently hadn’t read the paper. But that didn’t stop him from saying he didn’t think it was accurate. Here’s how the story read in the Hazard Herald:

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.”

There’s other coverage of the latest work by WVU’s Michael Hendryx here, here, here and here. And you can read the full paper, Personal and Family Health in Rural Areas of Kentucky With and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining, in The Journal of Rural Health. Here’s the abstract for those who want a summary:

Purpose: This study investigates health disparities for adults residing in a mountaintop coal mining area of Appalachian Kentucky. Mountaintop mining areas are characterized by severe economic disadvantage and by miningrelated environmental hazards.

Methods: A community-based participatory research study was implemented to collect information from residents on health conditions and symptoms for themselves and other household members in a rural mountaintop mining area compared to a rural nonmining area of eastern Kentucky. A door-to-door health interview collected data from 952 adults. Data were analyzed using prevalence rate ratio models.

Findings: Adjusting for covariates, significantly poorer health conditions were observed in the mountaintop mining community on: self-rated health status, illness symptoms across multiple organ systems, lifetime and current asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and hypertension. Respondents in mountaintop mining communities were also significantly more likely to report that household members had experienced serious illness, or had died from cancer in the past 5 years. Significant differences were not observed for self-reported cancer, angina, or stroke, although differences in cardiovascular symptoms and household cancer were reported.

Conclusions: Efforts to reduce longstanding health problems in Appalachia must focus on mountaintop mining portions of the region, and should seek to eliminate socioeconomic and environmental disparities.

This latest study is a follow-up paper to the one that Hendryx co-authored nearly two years ago examining cancer rates in the Coal River Vally area here in West Virginia, and it comes as related research continues to try to pinpoint potential causes for the increased illnesses among those living near mountaintop removal operations (see here and here). Coal industry officials like Bill Bissett are doing their best to try to get public officials to ignore this growing scientific evidence, but so far they haven’t been able to prove Hendryx wrong.

Take the recent paper from University of Pittsburgh researchers, which we described in the Gazette this way:

Residents in the coal-mining communities of West Virginia suffer higher overall death rates than non-mining areas of Appalachia, according to a new University of Pittsburgh study made public Wednesday.

The study, conducted as part of a coal industry-funded project, confirms some of the findings of West Virginia University research. However, authors of the new paper said their findings do not point as squarely at mining as a potential cause for increased coalfield mortality rates — at least not yet.

“More studies will be needed to understand the complex interactions of environmental factors, personal behaviors and other risks to determine the extent coal mining plays in elevating mortality rates,” said lead author Jeanine Buchanich, deputy director of epidemiology at the Pitt Public Health Center for Occupational Biostatics and Epidemiology.

That paper — part of the $15 million, coal-funded ARIES project based at Virginia Tech — raises some not-unexpected questions about previous work by Hendryx and others. But it’s far from a major debunking of the previous studies, and importantly, as our Gazette story noted, many of the questions raised by the Pitt study are actually things that Hendryx has in fact already addressed:

Buchanich and her colleagues say in their study, “The categories in which we found excesses [in mortality rates] are arguably heavily influenced by personal behaviors and risk factors, including heart disease and lung cancer.

“We were not able to control for personal risk factors in these analyses, including no control for confounding by smoking for causes of death highly affected by smoking, such as heart disease and respiratory system cancer,” the new study said.

In an interview Wednesday, Hendryx noted that his research has controlled for a variety of other possible factors, including smoking, poverty and educational level, and still found increased mortality and illness rates in Appalachian mining communities.

Also, Hendryx noted, the Pitt researchers said that further study should be performed to look more closely at the amount of coal mined and the type of mining — analyses that Hendryx and his co-authors have already done in their work.

“We have measured mining, generally, by looking at mining over all years covered by the study, and also examined not just presence/absence of mining but mining defined by amounts measured in tons, and by [mountaintop removal] versus other mining,” Hendryx said. “We have found health effects to be strongest in areas where mining is heaviest, and in areas where [mountaintop removal] is practiced, and those distinctions will be lost in their paper.”