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Systematic Review of Community Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Boyles AL, Blain RB, Rochester JR, Avanasi R, Goldhaber SB, McComb S, Holmgren SD, Masten SA, Thayer KA.
Environment International (2017) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2017.07.002 PMID: 28738262



The objective of this evaluation is to understand the human health impacts of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, the major method of coal mining in and around Central Appalachia. MTR mining impacts the air, water, and soil and raises concerns about potential adverse health effects in neighboring communities; exposures associated with MTR mining include particulate matter (PM), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, hydrogen sulfide, and other recognized harmful substances.
A systematic review was conducted of published studies of MTR mining and community health, occupational studies of MTR mining, and any available animal and in vitro experimental studies investigating the effects of exposures to MTR-mining-related chemical mixtures. Six databases (Embase, PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, Toxline, and Web of Science) were searched with customized terms, and no restrictions on publication year or language, through October 27, 2016. The eligibility criteria included all human population studies and animal models of human health, direct and indirect measures of MTR-mining exposure, any health-related effect or change in physiological response, and any study design type. Risk of bias was assessed for observational and experimental studies using an approach developed by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Office of Health Assessment and Translation (OHAT). To provide context for these health effects, a summary of the exposure literature is included that focuses on describing findings for outdoor air, indoor air, and drinking water.
From a literature search capturing 3088 studies, 33 human studies (29 community, four occupational), four experimental studies (two in rat, one in vitro and in mice, one in C. elegans), and 58 MTR mining exposure studies were identified. A number of health findings were reported in observational human studies, including cardiopulmonary effects, mortality, and birth defects. However, concerns for risk of bias were identified, especially with respect to exposure characterization, accounting for confounding variables (such as socioeconomic status), and methods used to assess health outcomes. Typically, exposure was assessed by proximity of residence or hospital to coal mining or production level at the county level. In addition, assessing the consistency of findings was challenging because separate publications likely included overlapping case and comparison groups. For example, 11 studies of mortality were conducted with most reporting higher rates associated with coal mining, but many of these relied on the same national datasets and were unable to consider individual-level contributors to mortality such as poor socioeconomic status or smoking. Two studies of adult rats reported impaired microvascular and cardiac mitochondrial function after intratracheal exposure to PM from MTR-mining sites. Exposures associated with MTR mining included reports of PM levels that sometimes exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards; higher levels of dust, trace metals, hydrogen sulfide gas; and a report of increased public drinking water violations.
This systematic review could not reach conclusions on community health effects of MTR mining because of the strong potential for bias in the current body of human literature. Improved characterization of exposures by future community health studies and further study of the effects of MTR mining chemical mixtures in experimental models will be critical to determining health risks of MTR mining to communities. Without such work, uncertainty will remain regarding the impact of these practices on the health of the people who breathe the air and drink the water affected by MTR mining.


Figure 1. Study screening diagram (through October 27, 2016).

Figure 2. Selected prevalence ratios for birth defects from MTR-mining studies.


Table 1. Detailed PECO study eligibility criteria.

Table 2. Overview of 29 community health studies.

Table 3. Summary of community health relevant studies of MTR-mining exposure.

Supplemental Materials

Supplementary data