Synopsis: The Association Between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects Among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003

Main Points:

  • The effect of mountaintop mining on birth defects was even stronger than the effect of maternal smoking.
  • Mountaintop mining in one county contributes to birth-defect prevalence rates in surrounding counties.
  • The overall rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in 1996-1999 and increased to 42 percent higher in 2000-2003.

Overview Summary:

  • Study background:
  1. This study compared the number of birth defects in mountaintop coal mining areas and with non-mining areas in central Appalachia.
  2. The study observed birth defect numbers in 1996-1999 and 2000-2003.
  3. This study looked at all live birth outcomes regarding birth anomalies (defects) for the years 1996 through 2003.
  4. This study controlled for birth-defect risks that might be from others factors such as: mother’s age, race/ethnic origin, education, smoking and drinking during pregnancy, diabetes, and metro/nonmetro location, infant gender, and low prenatal care. 
  • Findings:
  1. There were significantly higher prevalence rates of birth defects in mountaintop mining areas vs. non-mining areas.
  2. Birth defect categories that are significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas vs. non-mining areas were circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and ‘other’ defects.
  3. Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods (1996-1999 and 2000-2003), but was higher in the more recent period (2000-2003). 
  • Conclusions:
  1. Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks.
  2. The elevated birth defects suggest that environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates.
  3. According to related research quoted in this article, infants has found that mothers residing in coal mining areas are more likely to have a low-birth-weight infant.
  4. This study extends that research which show that mountaintop mining areas are associated with elevated levels of birth defect prevalence rates.
  5. These prevalence rates have risen in more recent years, just as mountaintop mining increased from 77,000 to 272,000 acres between 1985 and 2005, a 250% increase. 
  • Implications:
  1. This study contributes to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining is done at substantial expense to the environment, to local economies, and to human health.
  2. The incidence of birth defects increased substantially during the more recent period, 2000-2003. The newest data is currently eight years old. This suggests the question, “How many more birth defects are occurring now, in 2011?” 
  • Policy Considerations:
  1. Unless mountaintop mining is ended now, many more Appalachian children will begin their lives with disabilities that will compromise their potential and productivity for the rest of their lives.
  2. The public will bear the costs associated with the specialized medical care needed by these children for the foreseeable future.
  3. Economic diversification is critical in mining communities to provide other forms of gainful employment. 
  • Funded and/or conducted by:
  1. Study conducted by Melissa M. Ahern,Washington State University and Michael Hendryx, Jamison Conley, Evan Fedorko, Alan Ducatman, and Keith Zullig, West Virginia University.
  2. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research and was not funded by any environmental or advocacy group.


  • Ahern, Melissa M., et al. “The Association Between Mountaintop Mining And Birth Defects Among Live Births In Central Appalachia, 1996–2003.” Environmental Research(2011): 838-846. ScienceDirect. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

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