Article by Ken Ward Jr.


Birth defects study: More inconvenient facts about the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining

June 30, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.


I was out of town last week when news broke of the latest major scientific study about the serious public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. My buddy Dr. Paul Nyden covered it for the Gazette with this front-page story, reporting:

Researchers found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in areas with mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining regions in central Appalachia, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study “offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated specifically in [mountaintop removal] areas. It’s significant not only to people who live in coalfields but to policymakers as well,” said Michael Hendryx, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.

Hendryx is one of the authors of the study, titled “The Association between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003.”

“This study extends previous research on low birth weight and on adult morbidity and mortality in coal mining areas,” Hendryx said.

Now, one thing we know for sure is that whenever the coal industry says regulators are getting in their way, Appalachian political leaders are falling all over themselves to issue news releases reacting. And whenever that happens, the local media throughout the coalfields do their duty: Repeating without question the industry line.

But as I’ve scanned the papers, the wires and the web, I am not seeing much coverage of this ground-breaking study … Aside from Nyden’s story, I saw pieces from John Cheves from the Herald-Leader and Erica Peterson from WFPL News.  I also saw stories from Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal and national coverage from Rolling StoneUSA Today and Mother Jones.

But in West Virginia, at least, I didn’t see much from the local media. And gosh, I haven’t seen once single public official issue a news release expressing the slightest bit of concern about whether their constituents (or future constituents) are facing a greater risk of birth defects because of mountaintop removal.

Does the study deserve far more attention, from the media and from policymakers?

Well, here’s what our friend Michael Hendryx said in a news release issued by WVU:

We found that birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas versus non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital and ‘other’.

Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods but was higher in the more recent period. In the earlier period the rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in mountaintop mining areas and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.

Is a 42 percent higher rate of birth defects in mountaintop removal areas big news? Is it a major public policy issue?

Well, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council,thinks a major review of the public health impacts of mountaintop removal by the National Research Council would be warranted:

To date, the research generated by university researchers and other scientists has been effectively ignored by Congress and other legislative bodies. Thus, the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining remains legal. To help break through this willful ignorance by Congress, bought and paid for by the coal industry and its allies, the National Research Council needs to intervene. Already published and peer reviewed research underscores the urgency to do so. The nation’s preeminent scientific agency needs to be heard on this issue: the National Academy of Sciences and its National Research Council were not established to be ignored.

Certainly every agency with any jurisdiction whatsoever over mountaintop removal mining needs to acknowledge by their actions the published research about the effects of mountaintop removal mining, whether they involve ecological destruction or birth defects.

To help those agencies, and to help legislatures and citizens as well, the National Research Council needs to commission a study of mountaintop removal’s ecological and public health effects in Appalachia.

Some readers of this blog will undoubtedly remain skeptical. But let’s at least be clear about what this study examined and what it found. I’ll quote here from a handy Q and A distributed by the authors.

First, what did they study?

We compared the prevalence of birth defects in mountaintop coal mining areas compared with other coal mining areas and with non-mining areas in central Appalachia. We compared prevalence for two periods of time: 1996-1999 and 2000-2003.

Next, who did they study?

We used secondary data to study all live birth outcomes regarding birth anomalies (defects) for the years 1996 through 2003. We determined mother’s residence relative to county mining type (mountaintop mining, other mining, no mining). We controlled for birth-defect risks including mother’s age, race/ethnic origin, education, smoking and drinking during pregnancy, diabetes, and metro/nonmetro location, infant gender, and low prenatal care.

What did they find?

– We found significantly higher prevalence rates for birth defects in mountaintop mining areas vs. other mining areas and non-mining areas.

– Birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas vs. non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and ‘other’.

– Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods (1996-1999 and 2000-2003), but was higher in the more recent period (2000-2003). The overall rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in the earlier period, and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.

– Mountaintop mining in one county contributes to birth-defect prevalence rates in surrounding counties.

What are the most important conclusions of this study?

Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks, suggesting that environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates. Findings are consistent with research showing greater land, water, and air disturbance occurring in mountaintop mining areas.

Let’s be very, very clear on that last part:

Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks, suggesting that environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates.

Why is this study important?

A growing body of studies of the association between residence in coal-mining areas and health outcomes have found significant associations between coal-mining areas and a variety of chronic disease problems for adults, after controlling for other disease risk factors. Research related to infants has found that mothers residing in coal mining areas are more likely to have a low-birth-weight infant. This study extends that research, showing that mountaintop mining areas are associated with elevated levels of birth defect prevalence rates. These prevalence rates have risen in more recent years.

Finally, what are the implications of this study?

This study contributes to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies, and to human health.


Mountaintop removal and birth defects: Just what are the coal industry’s lawyers talking about?

July 11, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

It’s no surprise that lawyers from the firm Crowell & Moring are attacking the latest study by Melissa Ahern and West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx indicating that people who live near mountaintop removal operations face a greater risk of birth defects.

But the internet posting from four of the firm’s lawyers — Clifford J. Zatz, William L. Anderson, Kirsten L. Nathanson, and Monica M. Welt — was, well, here’s what it said:

The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.

UPDATED: Crowell and Moring appears to have deleted this post from their law firm website … luckily, I saved it and have reposted it here so everyone can see it.

UPDATE 2: Nicole Quigley, a spokeswoman for Crowell & Moring, has issued this comment in response to my questions about their webpost and its disappearance –

Our website alert is not intended to reflect views of the National Mining Association, but is an attempt to identify certain potential weaknesses of the study in question. Consanguinity is one of a number of commonly addressed issues in studies of this type, regardless of geography. Scientists address this consideration regularly because it can matter to scientific conclusions, and do so regardless of locale. We did not raise this issue with particular reference to any region, and we did not mean to imply any such thing. That said, we apologize for any offense taken, as none was intended. We can appreciate the view that our alert may not have provided enough context to explain the scientific points we aimed to address, and so have removed it from our site.

I first saw this on a Facebook posting from our friend Bob Kincaid of Coal River Mountain Watch.  Bob was not amused, alleging that Crowell & Moring (lawyers for the National Mining Association and various coal companies) had tried to blame the birth defects on “incest,” and writing in one comment:

Nice of the National Mining Association and their hired guns at Crowell-Moring to tell us how they REALLY feel about us!

I guess I really wanted to give the industry lawyers the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they meant to simply suggest that having lots of people who are related — several generations, siblings, cousins — all living in nearby h0llows near mining operations was something that needed to be studied. After all, there is evidence that some birth defects can have genetic causes.

I looked up consanguinity (I was pretty sure that was the word they meant to use, notconsanquinity) and found that it meant:

… The property of being from the same kinship as another person. In that respect, consanguinity is the quality of being descended from the same ancestor as another person. Consanguinity is an important legal concept in that the laws of many jurisdictions consider consanguinity as a factor in deciding whether two individuals may be married or whether a given person inherits property when a deceased person has not left a will.

So, I asked Michael Hendryx about this … here’s what he said:

Consanguinity refers to levels of shared ancestry. It is a reference to in-breeding, not necessarily incest, but still insulting.

Consanguinity it is not just the same families living in the same area unless related members of those families are interbreeding.

Maybe they are referring to third cousins or distant relatives that might intermarry, but   1) research on whether higher birth defects occurs for relatives more distant than first cousins is very sparse,  2) they’d have to argue that MTM areas had more of these interbreeding pockets than other rural areas, and  3) they still don’t account for the higher effects found in recent time and in proximity to higher mining. This is another one of these attempts to say what the effects “really” are as an excuse to deny the serious health problems in MTM areas that exist across many health outcome measures. The reasons are partly due to the poor socioeconomic conditions that mining creates (not that are correlated with mining, but that mining creates), and may be due to the environmental pollution caused by mining.

The whole thing reminded me of an important study (with a great title) by anthropologist Robert Tincher, “Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia.” Based on 140 years’ worth of marriage records, the study concluded that “inbreeding levels in Appalachia … are neither unique nor particularly common to the region, when compared with those reported for populations elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history.”

I emailed all for of the lawyers listed as authors of the web posting, asking them to explain what they meant. I haven’t heard back from any of them yet today, but if I do, I’ll post what they have to say — or I invite them to comment directly on this blog.

I also asked Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, about all of this. She said her organization had no role in the law firm’s web posting, but that she didn’t think anyone was saying that inbreeding was the cause of the birth defects reported in the Hendryx paper.

By the way, here’s what Michael Hendryx had to say about the other criticisms of his latest paper:

The criticisms raised are to be expected. I disagree that we overstated our findings. I think we’ve been appropriately cautious in what we say about limitations of the study and conclusions. This paper can’t be considered in isolation but should be taken with the more than dozen other studies that continue to document serious health problems related to mining. Regarding the dose response critique specifically, we did measure earlier versus later effects and found stronger effects in the later period as effects of mining have accumulated. We also found spatial correlation effects indicating an effect as mining activity occurred in a greater number of surrounding counties. Both of these indicate greater effects with greater exposure — dose response.

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