Coal Mining And Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes among Students in Relation to West Virginia Coal Mining: an Environmental Riskscape Approach

Loretta R. Cain and Michael Hendryx

Environmental Justice


Keywords: Education, coal mining, cognitive development, learning impairment, West Virginia

Purpose: Researchers studied the idea that environmental exposures from mining may impair children’s cognitive development.

Important Finding: This study showed significantly lower learning outcomes for students in coal mining counties, as compared to non-mining counties in West Virginia.

Significant Quote: “The results add to a growing body of knowledge that coal mining activity in Appalachia is linked to a set of serious, negative health and developmental consequences.”

Results: This study began with the fact that coal mining and processing releases dangerous environmental chemicals into the air and water, which have negative effects on cognitive development and function.  These chemicals include: phthalates, alkylphenols, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, bisphenol A, lead, mercury, zinc, aluminum, and cadmium. 

By comparing standardized test pass rates in West Virginia counties with and without coal mining for the years 2005—2008, this study showed that students in coal mining counties have significantly lower learning outcomes than students in non-mining counties.  The researchers looked at 646 schools and 1,812 grades, for scores in math, reading, science, and social studies.  The results showed lower pass rates in coal mining counties.   When these results were adjusted for other variables, including smoking rates and quality of teachers, the students in coal mining counties still performed more poorly on standardized tests.

The authors explain that while there does not seem to be a large difference in pass rates, these numbers, when translated to the entire population of impacted students in coal mining counties, are staggeringly large.  A difference in pass rates of 1% means that 1,576 additional students failed one or more tests each year.  A difference of 3% means that 4,729 additional students failed one or more tests each year.

The article says that coal-mining counties have lower cognitive development rates.  It also addresses the other environmental factors that affect cognitive development, including poor teachers, poverty, and high smoking rates.  These negative environmental risks, according to the article, may also be attributed to living in coal mining areas, further complicating the problems that children in coal mining counties face.


Cain, L., and M. Hendryx. (2010) “Learning Outcomes among Students in Relation to West Virginia Coal Mining: an Environmental Riskscape Approach.” Environmental Justice, Volume 3, Number 2, 2010.