That study found 684 excess lung cancer deaths in Appalachia during those years. Most of those, the study said, were the result of other factors like smoking. After adjusting for those factors, the study still found 144 excess deaths over the five-year period, or about 29 per year.
Later this spring, another paper by Hendryx in the new journal Environmental Justice will examine total excess deaths from all causes in coal-mining counties in Appalachia.
After adjusting for other possible factors, coal-mining counties experienced 1,607 excess deaths during a six-year period between 1999 and 2004, Hendryx said. That amounts to about 268 excess deaths per year, he said.
"The incidence of mortality has been consistently higher in coal-mining areas for as long as the Centers for Disease Control rates are available, back to 1979," Hendryx said.
So far, Hendryx's work does not make a direct link between coal industry pollution and the increased illnesses. His studies have not yet examined specific emissions figures, or tried to conduct detailed reviews of how residents might be exposed to such pollution.
More research is needed on such matters, Hendryx said, but possibilities include exposure to coal byproducts such as slurry leaching into drinking water or air pollution effects from mining and coal processing.
But public health officials say that simply comparing the illness data for coal counties to non-coal counties provides a start for more in-depth examination of residents' concerns.
"This kind of study has value, because of its exploratory nature," said Celeste Monforton, a former federal mine regulator who teaches and studies public health at George Washington University. "Interested researchers can take the data and add data of their own and try to figure out what's going on."
In West Virginia, officials from the state Bureau for Public Health referred questions to agency epidemiologist Loretta Haddy, who did not return phone calls or e-mail messages on Tuesday.
Stephanie Timmermeyer, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, wanted more time to review the study before commenting on it, said DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco.
State and national coal industry officials said they would review the studies.
"We need to find out the basis for it, and what's behind it all," said Bill Raney, West Virginia Coal Association president.
Hendryx said while coal is a major economic player in the state, the impacts of mining on communities should not be forgotten.
"I think we have to be honest about the effects of coal on communities and not just pretend these things don't exist," he said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.