CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Researchers found "significantly higher" rates of birth defects in areas with mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining regions in central Appalachia, according to a study released Tuesday.The study "offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated specifically in [mountaintop removal] areas. It's significant not only to people who live in coalfields but to policymakers as well," said Michael Hendryx, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.Hendryx is one of the authors of the study, titled "The Association between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003.""This study extends previous research on low birth weight and on adult morbidity and mortality in coal mining areas," Hendryx said.Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study was based on more than 1.8 million live birth records between 1996 and 2003.The study used statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics from four central Appalachian states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.The study found six different kinds of health problems occurred more frequently in areas near mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining areas: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital and problems from "other" types of defects.The study also noted, "Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks. Both socioeconomic and environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors."The new study, "shows that places where the environment -- the earth, air and water -- has undergone the greatest disturbance from mining are also the places where birth defect rates are the highest," said Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, another of the study's authors.Four other WVU researchers working on the study were Jamison Conley and Evan Fedorko from the Department of Community Medicine, and Alan Ducatman and Keith J. Zullig from the Department of Geology and Geography.The study found health impacts from mountaintop removal mining were more pronounced between 2000 and 2003, than between 1996 and 1999.In 2003, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released an "environmental impact statement" estimating more than 1.4 million acres of central Appalachian forests had already been destroyed or were sites of future mountaintop removal operations.Telephone messages seeking comments were not returned by the West Virginia Coal Association or by Alpha Natural Resources, the Abingdon, Va.- based company that recently purchased Massey Energy, a major owner of mountaintop removal operations in Central Appalachia.Many coalfield residents and community action groups opposed to end mountaintop removal mining previously warned of its health impacts, according to a news release sent out on Tuesday by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Kentucky Environmental Foundation and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth."Mountaintop removal is not necessary; it destroys jobs, it destroys communities, and it is destroying human health," said Bo Webb, a Coal River Valley resident and anti-mountaintop removal activist.Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.