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Mining counties have higher death rates, study says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- 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.

Buchanich and her colleagues matched 31 West Virginia coal-mining counties to non-coal mining counties with comparable family income. The non-coal mining counties were in Appalachia, but not all of them were in West Virginia.

The study then compared cancer mortality rate data from 1950 through 2007 and non-cancer death rates from 1960 to 2007.

Among the findings:

• Higher rates of mortality in coal-mining counties compared to non-coal mining counties for total mortality, and all cancer, respiratory cancer, diabetes and heart-disease mortality.

• Higher rates of mortality in non-coal mining counties for kidney cancer and stroke.

• Higher rates of non-cancer respiratory disease mortality among males, but not females, in coal-mining counties, perhaps indicative of occupational diseases such as black lung.

A briefing on the study's results was posted online Wednesday by the Virginia Tech-based Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES, project.

Coal companies including Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal have contributed $15 million to ARIES to fund regional university research on coal's impacts, in response to federal government regulatory efforts and WVU studies that found residents living near mountaintop removal mines face increased risks of serious health effects.

Pitt public relations officials distributed more complete details of the new study, and the authors are scheduled to speak next month during a four-day ARIES meeting in Charleston.

Results of the Pitt study also will be included in the peer-reviewed proceedings of that ARIES meeting, which are being published in conjunction with the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.

Over the past five years, WVU researcher Michael Hendryx and various co-authors have published peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.

The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents near mining face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects and premature deaths. Environmental groups have not funded Hendryx, but those groups have seized on his findings to argue that mountaintop removal isn't just an issue about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountain streams.

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."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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