STOKING FIRE: Mountaintop Coal Mining Leads to Birth Defects, Respiratory Illness and Other Health Problems

Eleanor J. Bader

As mountaintop removal [MTR] has horned-in on underground mining, the health maladies of residents of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southwest West Virginia—Appalachia—have begun to pile up.

When Madison Minton was six months old, her parents noticed that her breathing was frequently labored. Now in second grade, the child is on eight medications for asthma and other pulmonary ailments.

“Madison’s situation is typical,” says Deborah Payne, Energy and Health Coordinator of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. “People in Eastern Kentucky often don’t have the financial capacity to move away so they live with the consequences of being downwind of a coal processing plant. This means that Madison is exposed to high quantities of dust every single day.”

Payne calls coal mining “one piece of the birth defect puzzle” and says that at every stage, coal is problematic, from its extraction, to its processing, transport, and eventual burning.  “At each step there are negative health consequences for adults, children, and fetal life,” she continues.

And it’s gotten worse. As mountaintop removal [MTR] has horned-in on underground mining, the health maladies of residents of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southwest West Virginia—Appalachia—have begun to pile up.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Here’s why. MTR requires the use of explosives to reach coal streams, a process that makes it even more perilous than underground mining. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR], MTR blasts release selenium, iron, and aluminum into the air. Selenium is particularly hazardous, PSR says, because it accumulates in tissue where it can cause circulatory, kidney, liver, and nerve damage.

But that’s not all: Later, chemically treated liquids are used to wash the coal and, more often than not, this brew ends up in groundwater. Even more frightening, a group called Appalachian Mountain Advocates estimates that when the time comes to turn coal into electricity, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury — in the form of coal ash — gets spewed into the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink.

Not surpringly, this hasn’t fazed the coal companies. In fact, by all accounts, MTR has been a boon for them, allowing the removal of two-and-a-half times more coal per hour than traditional underground mining. Already, the rush to extract — four million tons a year is taken from each coal-rich county — has cleared nearly 2200 square miles of forests, reduced 470 mountain summits to rubble, buried 2000 miles of streams, and damaged the ecosystems needed by fish and wildlife.

Still, it is the human toll that is causing the lion’s share of brow furrowing. A first-of-its-kind study released in June 1011 — “The Association Between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects Among Live Births in Appalachia, 1996-2003” — brought six scientists together to analyze more than 1.8 million hospital birth records for the central portion of the region.

Their findings should jolt both advocates of reproductive justice and those who purport to support the right to life. Indeed, the scientists were cautious, recognizing that most birth defects come from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Nonetheless, in areas where MTR is used, health abnormalities — including spina bifida, heart, lung, and genital malformations, cleft palate, hydrocephalus, and club feet — greatly exceeded defects in non-MTR areas: 235 per 10,000 versus 144. The study also found that living in an area with mountaintop removal increases the chance of having a child with a circulatory defect by 181 percent.

Adults, researchers say, also suffer. Numerous health surveys have confirmed that adults living in areas where there is mountaintop removal have significantly more illnesses than others of comparable age — with high rates of diabetes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, asthma, liver disease, hypertension, heart problems, and kidney failure. Factor in poverty — which affects nearly a third of Appalachia’s residents — and it’s hard not to despair.

Despite these realities, scientists say that they still have a lot to learn about the risks associated with MTR. “We have not yet investigated the health of pregnant women,” says Dr. Michael Hendryx, Director of the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center. “We know that at certain times during pregnancy there is a greater risk of toxins passing through the placenta. That has to be studied. Throughout Appalachia we hear stories about kids developing cancer at early ages, having asthma and other serious respiratory symptoms, getting frequent rashes and skin blisters. We also hear about kids with digestive and dental problems, kids losing their adult teeth while they’re teenagers. If they drink water from a well that water is usually not treated and we suspect that it is tainted by chemicals that come off a mining site and then rot their teeth. Other people have different kinds of air-related problems. In some places people have to wipe a thick layer of coal dust– it comes from the processing plants–off their furniture every day or two. The health problems vary depending on what people are exposed to — but they need to be documented and then analyzed.”

That said, some facts are incontrovertible: For one, coal-mining communities experience significantly more birth defects than communities where mining doesn’t occur. Secondly, adults living in MTR districts are, on average, sicker than adults who live elsewhere.

So what to do? Coal is currently responsible for generating almost half of the electricity used in the US, something that is unlikely to change unless viable alternatives are developed. At the same time, the companies that see coal as a cheap and abundant fossil fuel need to be reminded that here is nothing cheap about human health.

When I was a kid my grandmother frequently repeated a phrase that I found ridiculous: “If you have your health, you have everything.” Who would have imagined that, years later, that truism would resonate.


STOKING FIRE: OTC Weed-Killing Toxin Causes Birth Defects, Poses Wide Range of Other Health Hazards

Eleanor J. Bader

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed is consistently higher in the months following its use. And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. 

Back in May, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers—a company with offices in 90 countries and a workforce of 26,000 people—settled an eight-year-old class action lawsuit for $105 million. The agreement provides funding to more than 30 districts in the Midwestern United States to clean up water supplies that had been contaminated by Atrazine, a pesticide that was banned by the European Union in 2004 and that the National Institutes of Health have linked to adult illnesses and disabilities in newborn babies who were exposed to it in utero. 

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed—defects that include spina bifida, Down syndrome, respiratory anomalies, and esophageal, and gastrointestinal abnormalities–is consistently higher in the months following its use.  

“Atrazine is applied and spread on crops in the spring,” Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains.

“It then goes into the ground water. The amount spikes during application season so that there are weeks, or even months, when people are exposed to drinking water containing more than three parts per billion—the threshold for safety that has been determined by the Environmental Protection Agency–of this known endocrine disruptor. That’s why when a woman conceives during Atrazine application season, she is more likely to have a baby with health issues.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. The Centers for Disease Control found that “chronic high dose toxicity observed in animals demonstrated decreased body weight, myocardial muscle degeneration, liver toxicity, developmental ossification defects, impaired fertility, altered estrus cycles, delayed onset of puberty, and reduced levels of luteinizing hormones, prolactin, and testosterone.” In addition, scientists noticed that humans exposed to high levels of Atrazine had an elevated risk of miscarriage, breast, and prostate cancers.

“The settlement money will help clean up and prevent future contamination,” says Paul Towers, the Organizing and Media Director of the Pesticide Action Network of North America “But it does not have any public health implications for the hazards of Atrazine. On the positive side, there is money for cleaning the water Midwesterners drink. The problem is that Syngenta has lobbied hard to keep selling Atrazine; it’s their flagship product.”

PANNA estimates that seven million US residents were exposed to Atrazine in their drinking water in the five years between 1998 and 2003. What’s more, 75 percent of all corn, 58.5 percent of all sorghum, and 76 percent of all sugarcane is presently treated with the pesticide. It’s also used on lawns and golf courses throughout the country.

As if this were not enough, recent studies conducted by the NRDC found Atrazine in the drinking water of 153 public water systems. “The adverse effects of Atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans, even at low levels of exposure,” the researchers concluded. ”Concentrations as low as one part per billion have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs.”

No, people are not frogs. Still, it seems clear that dangers lurk, something the EPA noted 22 years ago when it dubbed the herbicide a “restricted use product.” Despite this gesture, the designation changed nothing. Atrazine continues to be sold over the counter—to the tune of 76 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone–and there is absolutely no oversight to make sure that it is used safely. Worldwide, 60 countries allow it to be sprayed on crops.

For its part, despite the settlement agreement, Syngenta is hunkering down and continuing to sing Atrazine’s praises.

“Syngenta acknowledges no liability and continues to stand by the safety of Atrazine,” Ann Bryan, the company’s Senior Manager for External Relations wrote in an email. ”The value of Atrazine is clear. It benefits American farmers by up to $3.3 billion and supports up to 85,000 American jobs related to farming annually.”

Indeed, Atrazine IS effective and has proven to be a fast and inexpensive way to kill weeds. The question is whether having weed-free fields is worth the health risks everyone but Syngenta associates with the product.      

Worse, the fact that Atrazine can linger in the water supply for up to 15 years should give everyone–from the EPA, to farmers, to corporate executives—pause, especially since it is possible to promote safer ways of using Atrazine until it can be phased out.

The Land Stewardship Project cautions that if Atrazine has to be utilized it should never be sprayed within 200 feet of a lake, pond, or reservoir and urges the planting of high grass buffers along all rivers and streams. At the same time, the Project argues that weed control without pesticides is possible—if more labor intensive.

It comes down to how much we value the people who plant, pick, and nurture our crops since farm workers and their offspring are clearly at disproportionate risk of pesticide poisoning. “Farmers seem stuck on a pesticide treadmill,” PANNA’s Paul Towers admits. ”Rather than moving toward more ecological practices that allow us to grow more successfully, they too-often fall prey to relentless sales pitches from pesticide corporations.”  

That said, some heartening progress in workplace and consumer safety is evident. Not only has BPA, another known endocrine disruptor associated with increased heart disease, diabetes, liver toxicity, and breast cancer, been banned from baby bottles and sippy cups—a small first step–but in the past few years coalitions have formed to address the health consequences of other pesticides. To wit, six months ago, in March 2012, the Arysta LifeScience Corporation agreed to stop dumping methyl iodide on California’s strawberries fields. The concession followed an unprecedented campaign by the United Farm Workers and environmental and reproductive health groups to publicize the dangers the chemical poses for human reproduction.

While all agree that Atrazine may be a tougher nut to crack—it has been used since 1958—mounting evidence of the havoc it causes cannot be ignored. The onus, however, is on us to do extensive outreach, bringing together a broad cross-section of people to demand safe workplaces, safe food, and safe conditions for conception. Time is surely of the essence.