By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Days after CNHI News reported on a study that linked elevated levels of self-reported cancer deaths in Floyd County to surface mining, another national health study ranks Floyd County as the unhealthiest in Kentucky.
The University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this week released their fourth annual County Health Rankings for all 50 states. Oldham County is rated Kentucky’s healthiest and Floyd its least healthy.
Boone County, in northern Kentucky, is the second healthiest, while Perry County, also a mining community in southeastern Kentucky, is ranked the state’s second unhealthiest.
The rankings are based primarily on factors like income, smoking rates, obesity, income and access to medical care, according to University of Wisconsin’s Angela Russell.
It measures some physical environmental data but it did not specifically study the effects of surface mining in counties, according to Russell. The study found Floyd County actually has less air pollution on average than Kentucky as a whole. Russell said the study data on “fine particulate matter” comes from the Centers from Disease Control.
Russell suggested the absence of heavy industry in a rural area is the explanation for the lower rate of air pollutants shown in the study.
But the RWJF study found that 95 percent of Floyd County’s population is “exposed to water which exceeds the (acceptable) limit of contamination,” Russell said. Those data come from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Russell said.
Michael Hendryx, professor of Public Health at West Virginia University, last week published a study showing Floyd County has higher self-reported levels of cancer deaths and other symptoms of poor health which he links to surface mining. Hendryx is skeptical of the RWJF data regarding air pollution or particulate matter.
“The County Rankings Data on particulate matter are very weak and I don’t think they provide an accurate picture of air quality,” said Hendryx who recently wrote a paper for the American Journal of Public Health questioning those data in the RWJF study.
In that paper, Hendryx said the County Rankings underestimate air pollution and environmental factors such as surface mining. The paper is otherwise generally supportive of the rankings, saying they can provide valuable guidance to local health officials and policy makers.
But Hendryx suggests closer attention to environmental pollution.
“Exposure to environmental pollutants has a larger impact on population health than the (County Rankings) model indicates,” Hendryx writes in the paper.
Deborah Payne of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation said only recently have environmental monitoring groups and agencies begun measuring very fine particulate matter like silica dust and other tiny mineral particles released into the atmosphere by explosions of rock, something which occurs frequently in surface mining in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
She said lower levels of particles measured in one county by County Rankings don’t necessarily guarantee better air quality than that in other parts of the state.
Hendryx suggests in the American Journal of Public Health paper that the County Rankings should also monitor mining activity, stream integrity and Toxic Release Inventory Data where applicable as well as satellite photos of land use.
Satellite imagery is one way an organization called “I Love Mountains” tracks mining activity by county, according to Dr. Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, one of the environmental groups which sponsor the I Love Mountains organization and website.
According to the ILM data, Floyd County has an estimated 23,400 or so acres of surfaced mined areas. Perry County has approximately 41,000 of surface mined acreage.
(Accurate acreage data isn’t available from the state, according to officials at the Department of Natural Resources, because the state only tracks mined acreage by permits which are sometimes transferred from one company to another or overlap and thus are sometimes duplicated in the DNR database.)
ILM shows surface mined acreage in all seven of the lowest ranked Kentucky counties in the RWJF County Rankings; Perry (RWJF rank of 119), Breathitt (118), Wolfe (117), Lee (116), Pike (115) and Martin (116).
By comparison, Union County in western Kentucky which is now the state’s leading producer of coal, nearly all of it mined underground, ranks 74th. It has no surface mined acreage, according to ILM.
But Russell, the University of Wisconsin researcher, points out that the eastern Kentucky counties which rank low in health and high in surface mining are also generally poorer and less educated with higher smoking and obesity rates, all factors likely to lead to poorer health outcomes.
Conversely, Oldham and Boone counties are more affluent and better educated.
So are counties like Warren, home to Western Kentucky University, which ranks 15; Madison County with Eastern Kentucky University ranks 19; and Rowan County, where Morehead State University is located, ranks 38. Urban Fayette County, home to the University of Kentucky and a regional medical center, ranks 8. Kentucky’s most urban county, Jefferson where the University of Louisville is located, is also a major medical hub but it is also home to higher levels of vehicle and industrial pollution, and ranks 30.
Other examples include Barren (43), Wayne (46), Pulaski (49), Greenup (54), Laurel (64), Boyd (88), McCreary (89), Carter (91), Whitley (96), and Knox (98).
State and county rankings can be viewed at: www.countyhealthrankings.org/. The ILM data on surface mined acreage can ve viewed at: www.ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost/county-profiles
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.