CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Across West Virginia's coalfields, residents frequently worry that coal slurry in their water or coal dust in their air is making them sick.
Now, a West Virginia University researcher who has spent more than seven years looking into the issue says those residents may be onto something.
West Virginians who live in the state's coalfield counties are more likely than other residents to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney disease, WVU researcher Michael Hendryx reports in one of a series of new scientific papers.
"We need to pay attention to these problems, and try to find ways to deal with them," Hendryx said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Hendryx, associate director of the WVU Institute for Health Policy Research in the university's community medicine department, is co-author of four new articles examining coal's possible impacts on public health in Appalachia.
The studies found more lung cancer deaths, overall hospitalizations and overall deaths in coal-producing counties compared to other parts of the region and to the nation as a whole.
On Tuesday, WVU issued a news release to call attention to one of the papers.
That study, being published in next month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health, used data from a 2001 phone survey of nearly 16,500 West Virginians. Hendryx and Washington State University researcher Melissa Ahern compared the results to coal production figures, U.S. Census data and Department of Health and Human Resources information.
As coal production in counties increases, they found, so does the incidence of chronic illness.
Residents in major coal counties had a 70 percent increased risk of kidney disease and a 64 percent increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as emphysema, the study found. Coal county residents were also 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.
Hendryx and Ahern tried to isolate coal's potential impacts by factoring out the influence of other possible causes, such as smoking, obesity and age.
"We've adjusted our data to include those factors, and still found disease rates higher in coal-mining communities," Hendryx said.
In another study, published in the January 2007 issues of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Hendryx examined hospitalization patterns in coal-mining counties of West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
That study found that hospitalization for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased 1 percent for every 1,462 tons of coal produced in a county. Hospitalization for high blood pressure increased 1 percent for every 1,873 tons of coal produced, the study found.
This month, another study by Hendryx in the journal Lung Cancer reported that lung cancer rates for 2000 to 2004 were higher in areas of heavy Appalachian coal mining, even after figures were adjusted to take smoking, poverty and other variables into account.