Birth defects are significantly more common in areas of mountaintop coal mining and are increasing as the practice becomes more common, according to a study by researchers at Washington State University and West Virginia University.
Led by Melissa Ahern, health economist and associate professor at the WSU College of Pharmacy, the researchers found 235 birth defects per 10,000 births four central Appalachian states where mountaintop mining is most common in–nearly two times the rate of 144 defects per 10,000 in non-mining areas.
The study found counties in and near mountaintop mining areas had higher rates of birth defects for five out of six types of birth defects: circulatory/respiratory , central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and urogenital defects. These defect rates became more pronounced in the more recent period studied, suggesting the health effects of mountaintop mining-related air and water contamination may be cumulative.
Other studies have found low birth weights and increased levels of adult disease and death in coal mining areas–but this study suggests that the problems are specifically high and concentrated in mountaintop areas.
“The findings contribute to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies and to human health,” the authors write in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Research.
Mountaintop mining uses explosives to destroy ridges and deposit the rock and soil in local valleys. More than 2,700 mountain ridges, as well as thousands of rivers, have been ruined or altered by the practice in areas of eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. Research has shown higher levels of pollutants in these areas, including mercury, lead, and arsenic.
Answering to the increased demand for the fuel, mountaintop mining increased 250 percent between 1985 and 2005.