Premature deaths, disease hit WV coal counties harder

RESIDENTS in the coal mining communities of West Virginia suffer higher premature death rates than non-mining areas of Appalachia, according to a new study.

Staff Reporter

As a part of an Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) project, the research team at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, led by Dr Jeanine Buchanich, examined select mortality rates.

Buchanich and her colleagues matched 31 West Virginia coal-mining counties to non-coal mining counties based on 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 to 2007 and non-cancer death rates from 1960 to 2007.

The study found higher overall mortality in coal regions for men and women. It also found higher rates of all cancer, respiratory cancer, diabetes, and heart disease in coal mining compared to non-coal mining counties.

“The results of these analyses indicate that total and cause-specific mortality is elevated in WV coal-mining counties relative to Appalachian non-coal mining counties for certain causes of death,” an ARIES research update bulletin reported.

The study also found higher rates of mortality in non-coal mining counties for kidney cancer and stroke, suggesting that other factors, and not solely coal mining, were influential.

“Additional studies of Appalachian mortality are required to understand the complex interactions of factors and determine the extent to which coal mining plays a part,” the ARIES release said.

“Additional analyses need to control for personal risk factors, environmental toxics and other potential confounding factors.”

Higher rates of non-cancer respiratory disease mortality were also found in coal-mining counties among males, but not females, perhaps indicative of occupational diseases such as black lung.

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 West Virginia University studies that found residents living near mountaintop removal mines face increased risks of serious health effects.

The authors of the research are scheduled to speak next month during a four-day ARIES meeting in Charleston and results of the study will be included in the peer-reviewed proceedings of the meeting.

The ARIES release said that further journal articles would be prepared once additional findings were made.

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