As coal declines in Central Appalachia, what is its legacy in health, including mental health?

As the coal industry declines, rapidly in Central Appalachia, there are “clues suggesting that health and mental-health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades,” Georgia State University biology professor Roberta Attanasio writes for The Conversation US.

Appalachia’s death rates are higher than in the nation as a whole, Attanasio notes: “A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to ‘socioeconomic disadvantages’ and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits.”

A retired coal miner looks at Kayford Mountain in West
Virginia in 2007. (Photo by Andrea Hopkins for Reuters)

Attanasio notes research showing correlations between mountaintop-removal mining and poor health: “They show that when mountaintop removal increases, well-being decreases. However, they do not show that mountaintop removal directly causes a decline in well-being because of the nature of the pollutants and the nature of the exposure to them. Despite the intricacy of studying this area, links to adverse outcomes such as birth defects, cancer, and lung, respiratory and kidney disease, are undeniable.”

Mountaintop mining may also affect some people’s mental health, Attanasio writes: “People who gain a strong sense of identity from the land are most likely to experience negative outcomes. Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia as ‘a feeling of chronic distress caused by negatively perceived changes to a home and its landscape,’ which he observed in his native Australia due to the effects of coal mining.

People who experience solastalgia lack the solace or comfort provided by their home; they long for the home environment to be the way it was before. In a study of Australia published in 2007, Albrecht and collaborators documented the dominant components of solastalgia linked to open-cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales – the loss of sense of place, the feeling of threats to personal health and well-being, and a sense of injustice and/or powerlessness.”

Attanasio notes a survey-based study in Central Appalachian areas with and without coal “indicated that individuals who experience environmental degradation caused by mountaintop-removal mining are at increased risk for depression. The study showed that the odds of a score indicative of risk for major depression are 40 percent higher in areas subjected to mountaintop-removal mining when compared to non-mining areas. Furthermore, the risk of major depression is statistically elevated only in mountaintop-removal areas, and not in areas subjected to other forms of mining, even after statistical control for income, education and other risks.”

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