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New Studies Look Closer at Mountaintop Removal's Effect on Health

Three new studies have added more scientific evidence to support ill health effects from mountaintop removal coal mining.Over the past few years, several studies have presented evidence supporting links between health problems—like cancer and birth defects—that are more prevalent in communities with mountaintop removal mines. But these new studies attempt to pinpoint specific pollutants that could be causing those health problems.Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette had a nice overview of the studies—which have all been presented at conferences but not yet published in peer reviewed journals. In the latest paper, USGS researchers gathered samples of particular matter deposited in communities near mountaintop removal operations and compared the chemical composition to similar material collected in other Southern West Virginia locations. They found higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from the overburden, or the rock removed to get at the coal at nearby mining operations. "It's not too surprising, since they blow up rocks to get at the coal," said USGS research geologist Allan Kolker, who delivered a paper on the results at a conference last month in Montreal.Another paper by researchers at West Virginia University finds that air particulate matter from mountaintop removal communities was larger than in other communities, and was a size that was more likely to be deposited in human lungs. And for the other study, WVU scientists exposed lab rats to mountaintop removal dust, and found that the rats’ blood vessels constricted and reduced blood flow.These studies could be significant, and address some of the major criticisms from industry directed at previous studies. On his blog, Ward sums it up like this: While the studies to date are incredibly compelling, and reason for serious public health concerns, these latest (and still unpublished) papers are just beginning to dig into questions that might, with even more research, get to the issue of causation. We’ve discussed here before my own concerns about how activists overplay the findings of these papers. The coal industry, of course, wants to pretend the papers don’t exist, fund research aimed at trying to discredit them (see here, hereand here), or raise outlandish claims that if there is any problem, it’s all because we’re a bunk of inbred hicks.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.