The birth defects study was co-authored by WVU's Michael Hendryx and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University. Hendryx and Ahern, along with a collection of colleagues, have published a series of papers examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.
Collectively, the papers have given weight to citizen complaints about coal's impact on public health. Anti-mountaintop removal activists point to the research to show that the issue isn't just about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountain streams.
"Mountaintop removal is not necessary," said Bo Webb, a longtime activist who lives near a mining site in the Coal River Valley. "It destroys jobs, it destroys communities, and it is destroying human health."
Last week, a coal industry law firm apologized after initially suggesting in a client solicitation that the scientists should have examined whether inbreeding caused any increase in birth defects.
The National Mining Association has questioned the birth defect study's methods, saying it did not fully account for other potential causes and in some cases used faulty data.
Hendryx said that many of the industry group's criticisms were actually discussed in the paper as limitations of his research, and that much more work needs to be done on the issue.
"I am not aware of any single study that can analyze all known risk factors for birth defects," Hendryx said. "I believe we have been accurate and appropriately cautious in our interpretations."
The study analyzed 1.8 million records of births between 1996 and 2003, and found "significantly higher rates" of birth defects -- affecting circulatory, respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal and urogenital systems -- in mountaintop removal areas compared to areas with other types of mining or no mining at all.
"Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks," the study said. "The findings documented in this study contributed to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies and to human health."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.