Study: Coal Mining Pollution May Affect Public Health

March 25, 2008
A West Virginia University (WVU) study concluded that residents living near coal mines may face health risks from coal-related pollution, which is a likely contributor to heart, lung and kidney diseases.

The study, “Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia,” revealed a relationship between coal production and forms of cardiovascular, lung and kidney disease in the state, prompting researchers to call for improved access to health care and stricter environmental standards within mining communities.

“Residents of coal-mining communities have long complained of impaired health,” said Michael Hendryx, Ph.D., 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.”

Health Risks

According to Hendryx, the study’s data revealed that residents in coal mining communities face a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease; a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema; and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.

“We’ve considered that chronic illness might be prevalent in these areas because rural West Virginians have less access to health care, higher smoking rates and poorer economic conditions,” Hendryx said. “We’ve adjusted our data to include those factors, and still found disease rates higher in coal-mining communities.”

The study also examined hospitalization rates in these communities and indicated the risk of hospitalization stays forCOPD increases 1 percent for every 1,462 tons of coal. In addition, hypertension increases 1 percent for every 1,873 tons of coal. Mortality data for West Virginia suggests coal-mining pollution results in 313 excess deaths every year.

Increased Coal Production Leads to Rise in Chronic Illnesses

As coal production increases, Hendryx explained, so does chronic illness in the surrounding population. It appears that environmental pollution, caused by coal-processing chemicals, equipment powered by diesel engines, explosives, toxic impurities in coals and dust from uncovered coal trucks, may affect public health.

Hendryx and co-author Melissa Ahern, Ph.D., of Washington State University, used data from a 2001 WVU Health Policy Research telephone survey of more than 16,400 West Virginians. This information was correlated with data from the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, which shows volume of coal production from mining in each of the state’s 55 counties.

The researchers noted that this study, which will appear in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, is an analysis of existing data. They plan to directly measure air and water in coal-mining communities in subsequent studies.

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