Debate Centers on Study Suggesting Coal Causes Health Problems
A heated debate centers on new research showing that residents in Floyd County, where coal is stripped from the tops of mountains and ridges, report more health problems than those in two nearby communities without such mines, Elliott and Rowan.
Stonecrest Golf Course at Prestonsburg in Floyd County, built on a reclaimed mountaintop-removal coal mine.
The study, published in the online Journal of Rural Health, is the latest by Dr. Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University to suggest that residents of mining areas have poorer health conditions and experience more serious illness. It is available to readers of Kentucky Health News by clicking here.
Unlike some of his West Virginia research, Hendryx does not say there is a correlation between mining and poorer health outcomes in Eastern Kentucky. He does suggest the possibility of a connection by showing residents' self-reported health problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and hypertension are more common in mining areas. And in an interview, he said he believes there is a connection.
The study and its critics highlight the challenges and pitfalls of discussing and reporting such research. The study's underlying motives and methodology are contested. The president of the Kentucky Coal Association, Bill Bissett, said Hendryx has reached a conclusion and is seeking evidence to support it.
"Bissett's accusation is completely false," Hendryx replied. "On the contrary, he is obviously the one with the biased perspective and has a strong financial motivation to try to discredit this work."
Bissett questions the study's use of self-reported health measures that did not consider medical history. Self-reporting is susceptible to bias, which can be reduced by using other sources of data/. This study only included data collected from interviews conducted by volunteers, which may have introduced more bias, Bissett said.
Hendryx replied, "We used undergraduate students from Christian colleges who were trained to be fair and objective in the survey procedures, and to use the same procedures in both the mining and non-mining communities." He said Peter Illyn, who runs the Christian organization Restoring Eden, approached him to do the survey because Illyn "wanted to give the students this experience, and he wanted to replicate the survey that we had done the previous year in West Virginia, this time in Kentucky."
The volunteers interviewed 544 participants lived in Floyd County and 351 in Rowan and Elliot counties, where coal is not mined. It used standard statistical devices to control for factors that might influence health status: age, sex, education, marital status, work as a coal miner, weight and tobacco habits. However, there was no consideration of health behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, wellness measures, exercise or other healthy lifestyle habits that could have positive influences.
"The survey had to be brief with the time and resources we had," said Hendryx. "We did measure overweight and obesity, which is a reflection of diet and exercise. We measured tobacco use. We did not measure alcohol use in this survey but in other studies we have found that heavy alcohol use is not common and is not an explanation for the findings."
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who is from Floyd County, said he disagreed with the use of Rowan County, home of Morehead State University, as a control group due to the higher rates of education attainment and per capita income, reported Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.
Stumbo told Ellis, “Everybody in the world knows that you can take a population that is less well educated and that has a lower per capita income and you’ll see their health habits are (worse) and hence their rates of diseases are attributable to those two things.” Rowan has a much better health status than surrounding counties, according to the latest national County Health Rankings.
Hendryx defended his research controls and the process of relying on self-reported medical histories. He said the health problems may be caused by tiny particles of dust from coal mining, which have been linked to health problems, can penetrate the lungs to cause health impacts, reported James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal. Hendryx said there are also concerns about polluted water and soil.
The study's data only hint at a connection between surface coal mining and poor health. Hendryx said he can’t prove that mountaintop removal is causing people to get sick, but he believes it is. What is needed, he told Bruggers, is a more thorough and expensive “gold standard” study of air and water quality near residences, and samples of blood, hair and toenails that can reveal exposure to pollutants.