MORGANTOWN, W.Va. –  Research has shown greater health disparities in Appalachian coal mining communities. A new study conducted by the West Virginia University School of Medicine shows that the disparities are especially concentrated in mountaintop mining areas. Those areas have the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.

The measure of health-related quality of life used in this study is a four question population-based measure developed by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Using the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone-based, random survey, residents in four central Appalachian states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia – were asked questions about how many poor mental and physical health days they experienced in the previous 30 days.

“Self-rated health and health-related quality of life were significantly reduced among residents of mountaintop mining communities in the unadjusted and adjusted models,” Keith Zullig, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Community Medicine and co-author of the study, said. “Mountaintop mining county residents experience, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than do the other populations. That’s approximately 1,404 days, or almost four years, of an average American lifetime. When mountaintop mining and other coal mining counties were not separated in a previous study, there were 462 reduced health-related quality of life days across an average American life.”

Michael Hendryx, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Community Medicine and co-author of the study, noted that this study also looked at the health effects on both men and women. A common belief is that if coal mining causes health problems, those problems are mostly occupational related problems experienced by coal miners themselves.

“When analyzed by gender and age group, although the effects were slightly stronger for men, effects were present for women as well, and trends were similar for the mountaintop mining communities. So it’s not just occupational,” Dr. Hendryx said. “These findings suggest the unique contributions mountaintop mining activity makes to negative health ratings among residents in counties with mountaintop mining activity compared with residents in other county groupings.”

Hendryx said that like most other studies this one is limited in respect to a lack of direct environmental quality data. “We don’t know exactly how this affects the air and water,” he said. “That’s one of the big next steps – to collect that data and relate it to human health.”

Zullig said that because this study was a county-by-county analysis it is still a crude estimate and the numbers could actually be underrepresented. “The effects of mountaintop mining could actually be much stronger among populations adjacent to these mining sites,” he said. “A zip code analysis might help us isolate the effects a bit more.”

The study appears in the May issue of the “American Journal of Public Health.”

For more information: Angela Jones, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
asj: 05-04-11