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.