Birth defects are more likely to occur in Appalachian counties with mountaintop removal coal mining — including Eastern Kentucky — than in other counties in the region, according to a new study.
The study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, suggests that birth defects could result from air and water pollution created by mountaintop removal, including mercury, lead and arsenic, which have been shown to pose risks to fetal development.
The study stops short of blaming mountaintop removal for birth defects. But its authors said they tried to account for other possible causes, such as higher rates of smoking, less education and poorer prenatal care among expectant mothers in mining counties. The common factor seemed to be proximity to the blasting of mountains to remove coal, they said.
"Technically it's true that we don't have direct environmental data that we can link in this study," said co-author Michael Hendryx, associate professor of community medicine at West Virginia University.
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"But if you look over the whole set of research documenting air and water quality problems caused by mountaintop removal, I think we've passed the point where we can say we don't really know enough and we have to study more," Hendryx said.
Hendryx and his lead co-author, Melissa Ahern, associate professor of health policy at Washington State University, have published several previous studies critical of the coal industry's health effects, including one that found a higher rate of chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in mining communities.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said Wednesday that he's still reading the new study and speaking to experts about it, so he's not yet prepared to address its conclusions. But Bissett said Hendryx's past studies and public statements critical of the coal industry — surface mining in particular — raise questions in his mind about the scientist's motives.
"It's very important when we're talking about research from these sorts of individuals that we understand their starting position so we can determine if their results simply reflect their personal philosophies," Bissett said.
Hendryx acknowledges that he believes mountaintop removal is harmful and should be stopped. But he said that is based on the accumulated scientific evidence. It is not necessary to spend more years studying the issue before the government acts, he said.
"It's kind of like the smoking argument to me," Hendryx said. "The tobacco industry for a long time tried to say 'We don't really know if smoking is harmful because we don't know exactly what the mechanism is that causes lung cancer.' But we knew that smoking was harmful to health. I think the same argument can be made here about mountaintop removal. We really have a lot of evidence now."
The new study examined nearly 1.9 million birth records in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia from 1996 to 2003. It compared the number of reported birth defects in those states' counties with mountaintop removal against their counties with no coal mining and counties with only underground coal mines.
Counties with mountaintop removal were more likely to see more than two dozen types of birth defects, such as malformed hearts and genitalia, circulatory and respiratory ailments, cleft lip, spina bifida, club foot and diaphragmatic hernia, according to the study.
"Rates for any anomaly were approximately 235 per 100,000 live births in the mountaintop mining area versus 144 per 100,000 live births in the non-mining area," according to the study.
The study cited contaminants released into local environments by large explosions, massive disturbance of soil and water and the production of toxic slurry from washing coal. Many of the contaminants are known to impair fetal development, the report said.
"The findings documented in this study contribute to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies and to human health," the report concluded.
Science has built a solid case against mountaintop removal, but it's hard to get Kentucky leaders to listen, said Deborah Payne, energy and health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation in Berea.
"A lot of people in our state have a lot of money invested in this form of energy, and I think that blinds us," Payne said. "The industry tells us that coal is cheap energy. But it's really not cheap when you consider all of its costs, including its impact on health and the environment."