Mortality Rates And Coal Mining Counties


Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Counties: 24 Years Behind the Nation

Michael Hendryx

Environmental Justice, 2008


Keywords:  Coal Mining, Appalachia, Mortality

Purpose:  The study tests whether mortality rates are elevated in Appalachian coal mining areas, and whether elevated mortality, if found, is due solely to socioeconomic conditions or if an additional effect specific to coal mining persists.

Important Finding:  Hendryx found that the mortality rate in coal mining areas is equal to the nationwide mortality rate 24 years ago!  National mortality rates have been slowly going down for a long time in the United States.

Significant Quote:  “The argument is often made that coal mining is an important economic contributor to the areas of Appalachia where mining takes place, and therefore that mining should be protected and encouraged. The first part of this argument is correct, but the second part is fallacious. Coal mining perpetuates poverty, environmental degradation, economic underdevelopment, and premature death. That it is an important part of a perpetually weak economy is no endorsement for its continuation.”

Results:  Hendryx found that counties in Appalachia where coal mining is heaviest had significantly higher age-adjusted mortality compared to other Appalachian counties and to other areas of the country. Elevated mortality rates persisted in Appalachian coal mining areas after further statistical adjustment for smoking, poverty, education, rural-urban setting, race/ethnicity, and other variables. After adjustment for all covariates, Appalachian coal mining areas were characterized by 1,607 excess annual deaths over the period 1999–2004. Adjusted mortality rates increase with increasing coal production from 1 to 7 million tons. These findings highlight environmental inequities that persist in Appalachian coal mining areas. Reducing these inequities will require development of alternative economies and promotion of environmental justice through regulatory and allocative policy changes.

Causes of elevated mortality in coal mining areas may reflect behavioral, cultural, and economic factors only partly captured through available covariates, but may also reflect environmental contamination from the coal mining industry. That effects were found for Appalachian coal mining areas but not coal mining areas elsewhere may reflect the unique relationship of mining activity to topography and population centers characteristic of Appalachia. Coal contains mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium, and many other toxic and carcinogenic substances and the mining and preparation of coal at local processing sites releases tons of annual ambient particulate matter and contaminates billions of gallons of water.