Coal pollution, birth defects 'linked'

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A US study has highlighted a potential link between air and water pollution from coalmining and birth defects.

The 2011 project out of Washington State and West Virginia universities examined mountaintop mining areas of the central Appalachia region, which comprises eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia and south-western Virginia.

It found higher-than-normal birth defects among children born between 1996 and 2003.

A review of the findings follows the launch of the Newcastle Herald’s Great Cover Up campaign, which calls for the region’s coal wagons to be covered to reduce the effect of dust pollution on Hunter communities.

The US paper was published in environmental sciences, ecology, and public health journal Environmental Research.

The study found that after accounting for socioeconomic risks, birth anomaly rates remained elevated in the mountaintop mining area, leaving open the possibility that water or air pollution might be contributing factors.

‘‘Results extend previous research on low-birth-weight outcomes and on adult morbidity and mortality in mining areas by demonstrating increased rates of birth defects as an additional public health effect related to coalmining in Appalachia,’’ the study said.

Linda Selvey, of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said it was difficult to draw a direct comparison between the area studied and those in the Hunter or Australia.

Coal, and the way it was mined, varied.

But the US project did highlight the need for Australian studies looking at the health effects of coal.

‘‘The fact that we know that where it has measured that there are risks associated with being in the vicinity of coalmining, coal transport and burning of coal, that would suggest we need to look into it,’’ Associate Professor Selvey said.

She supported the Herald’s campaign to have coal wagons covered.

‘‘It affects the communities ... particularly people in Newcastle along the route where many coal wagons can be going past every day,’’ she said.

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