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New Study Connects Mountaintop Mining to Birth Defects

June 24, 2011

BEREA, Ky. - Babies born in areas near mountaintop mining sites are at greater risk for birth defects, according to a new study.

A team of university researchers examined more than 1.8 million birth records from 1996 to 2003 in four central Appalachian states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Researcher Michael Hendryx, an associate professor of community medicine at West Virginia University, says babies born near mountaintop removal mines were 26 percent more likely to suffer birth defects, even when other risk factors such as a mother's age, obesity and smoking habits were taken into account.

"We found the rates of birth defects were significantly higher in areas where mountaintop mining activity takes place compared to either other mining or no mining areas, and that these elevated rates are present even after controlling for the effects of other risk variables."

The evidence speaks for itself, says Deborah Payne, energy and health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation: Polluted air and streams from blasting mountaintops to dig for coal poses health risks to children even before they are born.

"What this research means is that we need to recognize that this type of mining practice that we use for the collection of coal for our energy needs to be stopped."

Many coalfield residents, health and environmental groups have called for an end to mountaintop removal mining because of its pollution, deforestation and flooding. The coal industry has maintained that thousands of jobs would be lost with more government regulation of environmental rules, but Payne argues that the industry itself has contributed to mining job losses with the mechanization of surface mining.

"Mountaintop removal mining, as it has been put in place, has reduced coal mining jobs over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. This type of mining is not increasing jobs."

The study, the first to analyze links between surface mining and birth defects in children, is published in the journal Environmental Research. Entitled "The Association Between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects Among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003," it is online at sciencedirect.com.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY