Coal Health Study Blog


Proposed Hunter Valley Edition, Coal Health Study

The Coal Health Study blog is hoping to perform a Hunter Valley Edition of the Coal Health Study, using publicly available health data for the region.

Coal Mine Concerns in NSW Australia
Coal mines in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales (NSW), Australia form part of the supply chain for “the world’s largest coal export operation”, according to the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Logistics Team website.

Australian Greens MP Lee Rhiannon has been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the health impacts of coal mining and power station emissions, as reported mid-August 2009. Rhiannon is quoted as saying “the government is making millions from the Upper Hunter coal industry, giving the go ahead to one of the biggest industry expansions in NSW’s history.”

Last week, the Australian government announced that it had made a deal with coal and power industries for a regionally co-ordinated air quality monitoring network, to be managed by Macquarie Street.

As reported in The Herald, Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said “It isn’t enough to just monitor; they need to investigate and prosecute offences”, and “the Government should instead reopen the Environment Protection Authority office at Muswellbrook.” The Herald article also noted that “Mr Rhiannon said the Government needed to also fund research into the health impact of coalmining.”

The following quote from a recent Coal Mining news article sums up the Greens position:

The Greens are concerned that the new Air Quality Monitoring Network is simply window dressing, designed to deflect community concern about the adverse impacts of coal mining on local’s health.

The Greens are calling for the Air Quality Monitoring Network Memorandum of Understanding to be released so the local community can scrutinise the arrangement

Local NSW Doctor Undertakes Independent Study
As reported in this Singleton Argus article, Dr. Tuan Au of Singleton will be conducting his own study into the health impacts that air pollution is having on local residents.
Dr. Tuan Au is disturbed by the “high number of children that attend general practices in town presenting symptoms of asthma and other respiratory problems”.

Dr. Au is located in Singleton, which the Coal Industry Centre refers to as “the heart of the Hunter Valley coalfields region of NSW Australia.”

Hunter Valley Edition, Coal Health Study
In conjunction with community groups and in support of doctor Au’s study, which he estimates will take approximately 5 years to complete, the Coal Health Study blog is hoping to perform a Hunter Valley Edition of the Coal Health Study, using publicly available health data for the region, to the extent that they exist and are sufficient.

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Dr. van Steenis Speaks: Unedited Footage

MP3 UPLOAD – Dr Van Steenis Speaks to Douglas

SLIDESHOW – Audio and Some Photos, No Video – Doctor van Steenis speaks to Douglas

FULL VIDEO – Dr Dick van Steenis speaks to Douglas community

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Photo & Video Credit: Nicholas Roberts

The St Bride Centre was packed this past Wednesday, 23 September, with around 100 attendees. Among the attendees were 3 doctors, in addition to Dr. Dick van Steenis himself.

The Sunday Herald published an article on Dr. van Steenis’ lecture that has gone to press today: Opencast mines will lead to public health disaster, warns poison expert

Early on in his lecture, Dr. van Steenis cited examples of ill-health arising from pollution, and in the case where such ill-health effects are denied, he decried corruption in the field of public health in the UK. Dr. van Steenis also disputed the veracity of environmental reports issued by consultancy companies in the employ of coal companies.

Later on in his lecture, Dr. van Steenis described the mechanisms whereby particulate matter less than approximately 3 microns (a micron is a millionth of meter) causes inflammation and damage in the lungs, and leads to the development of cardiopulmonary disease and other disorders.

Coal Health Study Literature Review

There has been no commissioned research into the effects of open-cast coal mining on the health of Douglasdale residents.  There has, however, been a single individual, Dr. Dick van Steenis, who has investigated the health impacts of open-cast coal mining as a public service, and without payment.

As such, Dr. van Steenis’ work cannot be found in the peer-reviewed literature, but his results on open-cast mining and his references can readily be accessed at The Country Doctor Magazine, which features a section on Dr. van Steenis’ findings on the front page.

For the past few decades, Dr. van Steenis’ work has comprised the bulk of the available research into the health effects of open-cast coal mining on the local population.

In 1992, however, a study entitled “Asthma and open cast mining” [1] appeared in the British Medical Journal, with the finding of greatly increased asthma in the populations adjacent the mine.  The onset of the dramatic asthma increases occurred immediately after the mine began operations.  The local physicians were not informed about the commencement of mine operations until several weeks after the mine had opened, to assure that the increased diagnoses of asthma were factual, not occurring due to bias on the part of the physicians.  The final line in the study conclusion states:  “The results of this small study give cause for national concern in view of the current increasing trend toward open cast mining in Britain”.

The next peer-reviewed study, published two years later, was entitled “Respiratory Morbidity in Merseyside schoolchildren exposed to coal dust and air pollution” [2].  In this study “an increased prevalence of respiratory symptoms in primary schoolchildren exposed to coal dust was confirmed”.  The study noted that although “the association with known coal dust pollution is suggestive, a cross-sectional study cannot confirm a causal relation and further studies are needed”.

The following year, the study “Status of Air Pollution Caused by Coal Washery Projects in India” [3] was published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, and noted that 50% of the suspended particulate matter arising from the coal washing activities was of diameter less than 10 microns (a micron is 1 millionth of a meter).

The revelations of this 1995 study are important because the single coal-associated activity that they investigated revealed the presence of substantial quantities of particles less than 10 microns.  Regrettably, most particulate-measuring studies performed in the 1990’s neglected to measure particles less than 10 microns, but it has since been demonstrated by numerous studies that repeated exposure to particles of diameter less than 10 microns, and in particular, particles of less than 2.5 microns, damages the lining of the lung [9,10].

In a 2002 article entitled “Air pollution and health” [9], reviewed the evidence at time of publication, finding that the body of medical literature indicates that “exposure to pollutants such as airborne particulate matter and ozone has been associated with increases in mortality and hospital admissions due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease”.  The authors observed that “these effects have been found in short-term studies, which relate day-to-day variations in air pollution and health, and in long-term studies, which have followed cohorts of exposed individuals over time”, and that “effects have been seen at very low levels of exposure”.  Another review, published in 2008, entitled “Air Pollution, Oxidative Stress, and Dietary Supplementation:  A Review” [10], confirms the results from the 2002 review.

Returning to the open-cast coal mining literature review:  in 1998, there was a single, preliminary study performed on the Lanarkshire population, entitled “Does open-cast coal mining increase respiratory disease?” [4].  Because the study was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Medicine, it does not constitute part of the body of peer-reviewed literature.  The study used geographical methods that are common now, although the methods were untested at that time, but nonetheless “a small but significant association” was found between living near open-cast coal mines and contracting a respiratory disease.  It was noted that “this association warrants further investigation”.

Three studies came out of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne over the 2000-2001 period, all of which considered the health of children with regard to open-cast coal mines.

The first, “Living near opencast coal mining sites and children’s respiratory health” [5], studied children in five communities and found “little evidence for associations between living near an opencast site and an increased prevalence of respiratory illnesses … but children in opencast communities 1-4 had significantly more respiratory consultations”.   The second, “Consultations of Children Living Near Open-Cast Coal Mines” [6], found that “Consultations were higher in opencast communities for respiratory, skin, and eye conditions ” and “for respiratory conditions alone”, but noted that “increases in consultation rates in open-cast communities were generally not seen over the portions of the 52-week periods when the open-cast sites were either active or inactive”.  The third, “Prevalence of asthma and other respiratory symptoms in children living near and away from opencast coal mining sites” [7], found “little evidence for associations between living near an opencast site and an increased prevalence of respiratory illnesses, or asthma severity.”

In 2004, a study that examined most of the life-cycle of coal was published, entitled “Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining In India” [8].  This article provides a comprehensive review into the environmental and health impacts arising along the path coal takes, beginning with deforestation of the point of extraction, continuing along with the particulate pollution and accidents associated with extraction and haulage, and finishing with the sulfur, particulates, and greenhouse gases emitted at the point of combustion.

A study of Czech children living in a coal mining district came out in 2007, “Early Childhood Lower Respiratory Illness and Air Pollution” [11], with the finding that “ambient PAH and fine particles were associated with susceptibility to bronchitis” and suggested that “Preschool age children may be particularly vulnerable to air pollution-induced illness”.  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are found in coal and oil, and are released in combustion.  Particulates are produced by mechanical means (crushing, drilling, etc) as well as by combustion.

Two studies regarding the dusts produced by mechanical means at open-cast coal mines came out in 2007: “Generation and Quantification of Hazardous Dusts from Coal Mining in the Indian Context” [12], and “Characteristics of Hazardous Airborne Dust Around an Indian Surface Coal Mining Area” [13].  The first study determined that it is possible to assess the quantity of particulates generated by activities such as drilling and transport at an open-cast coal mining site.  The second study concluded that “more stringent air quality standards should be adopted for coal mining areas and due consideration should be given on the particle size distribution of the air-borne dust while designing control equipment”.

In 2008, the first study examining the health of the open-cast coal mining communities in the United States was published in the American Journal of Public Health:  “Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia” [14]   This study found that people living in proximity to open-cast coal mines have higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease, and kidney disease, even after correcting for the effects of covariates such as smoking and poverty.

Another Appalachian study came out in 2008 in the Lung Cancer journal, with the primary finding noted in the title: “Lung Cancer Mortality is elevated in coal-mining regions of Appalachia” [15].   This finding of lung cancer disease in populations living in the presence of pollution may be attributable to the incidence of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) occurring in the population in these areas, according to an article published this year in the European Respiratory Journal, entitled “COPD Prevalence is Increased in Lung Cancer, Independent of Age, Sex, and Smoking History” [16].

The most recent comparative study in the United States came out this year in the Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, entitled “Mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease in coal mining areas of Appalachia” [17].  This 2009 study demonstrated unusually high mortality rates for respiratory, cardiac, and kidney diseases in counties with open-cast coal mines, with the worst effects manifesting in populations near mines with extraction rates of greater than or equal to 4 million tonnes over a 4-year time period.

As these ill-health effects have been observed to occur for extraction rates in the United States that are less than the open-cast extraction rates ongoing in and proposed for the Douglasdale area, an preliminary examination of the health of the Douglasdale residents was performed in August 2009, entitled “Adverse effects of coal-mining”.  This preliminary examination does not form part of the peer-reviewed literature, but as the study findings have demonstrated striking ill-health in the populations living adjacent open-cast coal mines, it has formed the seed for ongoing research to be submitted for peer-review.

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[1]  Asthma and open cast mining.  J.M.F. Temple and A.M. Sykes, British Medical Journal, 1992.

[2]  Respiratory Morbidity in Merseyside schoolchildren exposed to coal dust and air pollution. B. Brabin, M. Smith, P. Milligan, C. Benjamin, E. Dunne, and ,M. Pearson, Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1994.

[3]  Status of Air Pollution Caused by Coal Washery Projects in India.  M.K. Ghose and S.K. Banerjee, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 1995.

[4] Does open cast coal mining increase respiratory disease?  G.C. Leng, A.C. Douglas, M. Donaghy, D. Gordon, Plenary Presentation, Society for Social Medicine Annual Meeting, 1998.

[5]  Living near opencast coal mining sites and children’s respiratory health  T. Pless-Mulloli, D. Howel, A. King, I. Stone, J. Merefield, J. Bessell, and R. Darnell, Occup. Env. Med., 2000.

[6]  Consultations of Children Living Near Open-Cast Coal Mines.  D. Howel, T. Pless-Mulloli, and R. Darnell, Environmental Health Perspectives, 2001.

[7]  Prevalence of asthma and other respiratory symptoms in children living near and away from opencast coal mining sites.  T. Pless-Mulloli, D. Howel, and H. Prince, International Epidemiological Association, 2001.

[8] Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining In India.  Krishnamurthy, K.V.  Proceedings of the National Seminar on Environmental Engineering with special emphasis on Mining Environment, NSEEME-2004, March 2004.

[9]  Air pollution and health.  B. Brunekreef and S. Holgate, Lancet, 2002.

[10]  Air Pollution, Oxidative Stress, and Dietary Supplementation:  A Review.  I. Romieu, F. Castro-Giner, N.Kunzli, and J. Sunyer, European Respiratory Journal, 2008.

[11]  Early Childhood Lower Respiratory Illness and Air Pollution. I. Hertz-Picciotto, R.J. Baker, P-S. Yap, M. Dostal, J. Joad, M. Lipsett, T. Greenfield, C.E.W. Herr, I. Benes, R.H. Shumway, and K.E. Pinkerton,  Environ Health Perspect. 2007.

[12]  Generation and Quantification of Hazardous Dusts from Coal Mining in the Indian Context.  M.K. Ghose, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 2007.

[13]  Characteristics of Hazardous Airborne Dust Around an Indian Surface Coal Mining Area.  M.K. Ghose and S.R. Majee, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 2007.

[14]  Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia. M. Hendryx and M. Ahem.  American Journal of Public Health, 2008.

[15]  Lung Cancer Mortality is elevated in coal-mining regions of Appalachia.  M. Hendryx, K. O’Donnell, and K. Horn, Lung Cancer, 2008.

[16]  COPD Prevalence is Increased in Lung Cancer, Independent of Age, Sex, and Smoking History.  R.P. Young, R.J. Hopkins, T. Christmas, P.N. Black, P. Metcalf, and G.D. Gamble, European Respiratory Journal, 2009.

[17] Mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease in coal mining areas of Appalachia.  M Hendryx, Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 2009.