More Asthma, Heart Disease, Multiple Organ Disease, Cancer and General Illness in Kentucky Mountaintop Removal Community | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
Release Date: 
Monday, March 18, 2013
Press Contact: 
Deborah Payne
Public Health Specialist, Kentucky Environmental Foundation

More Asthma, Heart Disease, Multiple Organ Disease, Cancer and General Illness in Kentucky Mountaintop Removal Community


The Journal of Rural Health article, Personal and Family Health in Rural Areas of Kentucky With and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining, can be found here.

Other studies

Nearly two dozen other studies have documented higher rates of a variety of illnesses including cancer, more birth defects and a lower life expectancy. Find a summary of those studies here.

A 2011 study from the University of Kentucky found a higher incidence of lung cancer and exposure to trace elements in most eastern Kentucky counties. Download a PowerPoint with the results here.

Another 2011 UK study found lung cancer rates in Appalachian Kentucky almost twice national rates … and that Appalachian residents were exposed to higher concentrations of Arsenic, Chromium and Nickel than Jefferson County, Kentucky residents.


A new study  in the Journal of Rural Health reveals that people living in communities where mountaintop mining occurs experience higher levels of illness compared to non-mining areas close by.

Researcher Michael Hendryx, chair of the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership in the School of Public Health and director, West Virginia Rural Health Research Center of West Virginia University, said, “When this study is combined with all of the other human health and environmental studies on mountaintop removal the weight of the evidence clearly indicates that MTR is harmful to human health.”

Mountaintop removal is a practice in which earth and trees are stripped from mountaintops to allow access to coal seams; soil, rocks and other rubble are dumped into valley rivers and streams.  The process involves use of high explosives and heavy machinery; generates fine dust and soot; and releases heavy metals into the air and waterways.

“Any one who has lived near a strip mine site, or just driven along one of the major coal haul roads like Highway 23, knows dust is a persistent problem, and we know this same dust causes silicosis in mine workers, both surface and underground,” said Floyd County resident Bev May, a nurse practitioner in eastern Kentucky for 18 years. “The excess chronic lung disease this study found in Floyd County supports my own observations that dust from surface mining is not just an annoyance, but a risk to our health.”  

The health study data was acquired through a community participatory health survey of residents in Floyd County, Kentucky where mountaintop mining is taking place, and in nearby Elliott and Rowan counties where coal mining is not taking place. 

Data shows significant poor health disparities in the mining communities, indicated by higher reported incidences of asthma; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; illnesses involving multiple organs; and general illness.  Mining community residents also reported more serious illness and cancer deaths in family members, than residents in the non-MTR communities.

Rick Handshoe, also a Floyd county resident, has noticed fish dying in streams in the MTR area. “My stream has been dead for several years as a result of pollution flowing from a discharge pipe that carries water off of a mine site. Nothing can live in this stream. A neighbor recently used the creek water to fill his stocked fishing pond. His statement was that ‘it boiled the fish alive.’ Other neighbors who watered their sweet potatoes with creek water noticed that the plants wilted immediately. We have to wonder what harm the pollution is doing to our health. The more I’m dealing with this water the scarier it gets.”

On a press conference Monday, May also pointed to two studies done at the University of Kentucky that reinforce the greater incidence of lung disease in Floyd and surrounding counties, and exposure to higher levels to trace minerals such as arsenic, chromium 6 and nickel on toenails compared to non-mining areas.

Other health experts in and outside the region see these results as significant and worthy of increased action from health agencies.  Ted Schettler, MD, Science Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network said, “Medical and public health professionals have more than enough data to act to prevent additional harm. It should come as no surprise that this destructive activity also destroys the health of families and communities living nearby.”

Kentucky Representative John Yarmuth and 26 other House members have taken action already, having introduced the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (ACHE – H.R. 526) that would place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health impact studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Our local and state officials have a duty to protect our people, and should not allow our environment to be drastically altered and then try to ignore the health consequences of those actions,” said Deborah Payne, MPH of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.  “Health impact studies can help curb these rising rates of cancer, lung and heart disease, and premature death.  Kentucky’s kids should be able to grow up healthy, no matter where they live.”

Bev May agreed. “I want my state Representative Greg Stumbo, and Representative Hal Rogers to know this: All the research points to what mountain people have known since mountaintop removal began: It is not possible to destroy our mountains without destroying ourselves. It’s not possible to poison our streams without poisoning our children for untold generations to come.”

May added, “There’s more than enough research to justify an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal. How long must we wait for our legislators to take action?”

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