New study confirms Appalachian coalfields' health threats

Residents of coal mining communities have a significantly higher risk of developing serious health problems, according to a new study by West Virginia University scientists. Compared to the average American, residents of West Virginia's coalfields are 70 percent more likely to develop kidney disease, 64 percent more likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.

And the problem isn't limited to West Virginia: The researchers say premature death rates suggest similar health problems afflict the entire Appalachian coal mining region, which stretches from Alabama to Pennsylvania and encompasses parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. They believe environmental pollution from coal-processing chemicals, diesel equipment, explosives, toxic impurities in coal, and dust from uncovered coal trucks are probably to blame.

"Residents of coal-mining communities have long complained of impaired health," said author Michael Hendryx, associate director of the WVU Institute for Health Policy Research. "This study substantiates their claims. Those residents are at an increased risk of developing chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases."

Coal isn't the sole culprit behind the region's poor health; other factors include residents' higher-than-average rates of smoking, poverty and poor education. But even when the researchers controlled for those factors they still found elevated disease rates. They also looked at hospitalization rates in relationship to coal production and found that the risk of hospitalization for COPD increases 1 percent per every 1,462 tons of coal produced and for hypertension by 1 percent per every 1,873 tons.

Hendryx and co-author Melissa Ahern of Washington State University used data from a 2001 WVU Health Policy Research telephone survey of more than 16,400 West Virginians. They correlated that with data from the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, which shows volume of coal production in each of the state's 55 counties. The study, "Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia," will appear in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Other detailed reports on mortality rates in coal-mining communities will be published in national journals this spring.

"People in coal-mining communities need better access to healthcare, cleaner air, cleaner water, and stricter enforcement of environmental standards," Hendryx said. "Our study helps open the door for further explorations of community health and coal mining. We owe it to people in those communities to start protecting and repairing their health."