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Study links mountaintop removal dust to cancer

A new West Virginia University study has found that dust from mountaintop removal coal-mining operations promotes the growth of lung cancer tumors.

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“A growing body of evidence links living in proximity to [mountaintop removal] activities to greater risk of serious health consequences, including significantly higher reports of cancer,” the study said. “Our finding strengthens previous epidemiological studies linking [mountaintop removal] to increased incidence of lung cancer, and supports adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control.”

Using dust collected from communities near mountaintop removal sites in Southern West Virginia, Sudjit Luanpitpong and other WVU researchers examined its effects on human lung cells to try to investigate previous statistical evidence that showed elevated lung cancer in coal-mining communities, even after adjusting for other factors such as smoking.

They found that chronic exposure to mountaintop removal dust induced cell changes that indicated development of lung cancer. While the data did not “indicate tumor initiation,” it did show “lung tumor promotion and progression” that showed the dust is “a health concern as a cancer promoter.” The first-of-its-kind experimental study used a dust exposure level roughly equal to what mining community residents might experience over an 8.5-year period.

“It’s a risk factor, with other risk factors, that increases the risks of getting lung cancer,” said WVU cancer researcher Yon Rojanasakul, another of the study authors. “That’s what the results show.”

In recent years, Michael Hendryx, a former WVU researcher now working at Indiana University, has partnered with a variety of other scientists on a series of peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses. The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that people living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects and premature deaths.

Continuing research, such as the new study published this week, is trying to examine actual pollution levels near mining sites and in mining communities, as well as the specific impacts of exposure to that pollution, to provide more answers about the potential impact.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said Hendryx, a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies ... have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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