- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 5, 2014

HAZARD, Ky. (AP) - A series of health meetings in eastern Kentucky exposed a surprising concern: Some people in the coal-producing region worry about potentially damaging health effects from mountaintop-removal mining, a health official said Tuesday.

“It came out in every meeting,” said Dr. Nikki Stone, a dentist who headed the group that listened to the recent public comments. “It came out very gingerly, and it was something that people were afraid to talk about.”

Those mining-related concerns surfaced during a regional health symposium Tuesday aimed at building support for efforts to improve the grim health statistics plaguing eastern Kentucky.

Stone said her group recently put together a 10-item list of top health issues for the region, based on the public comments.

Concern about possible health effects from mountaintop removal mining was tied atop the list of the most pressing issues, along with the need for a coordinated effort in schools to promote healthy living, she said.

Stone said people at the health meetings worried about possible links between mountaintop removal and damage to water and air quality that could possibly lead to higher rates of birth defects and cancer rates.

The mining method uses blasting and heavy machinery to scrape away layers of rock and earth, drastically altering the landscape.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was the featured speaker at Tuesday’s forum.

Later, when asked if health concerns about mountaintop mining might prompt a CDC study, Frieden told reporters: “If invited in, we could certainly look at it. CDC only goes where it’s invited. So if people want us to look at specific questions, we can look at them.”

Speakers at the forum stressed the need for broad-based preventive care, regular exercise and a campaign to win over young people in the effort to change unhealthy habits that have led to high rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes in Kentucky’s Appalachian region.

Frieden took aim at tobacco, which remains a big cash crop in Kentucky. He warned that tobacco use affects virtually every part of the human body and stressed its links to cancer, heart disease, strokes and other health woes.

“If you ask me to come talk about health improvement, I can’t do that without talking about tobacco,” Frieden said. “Because it is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in this country. It’s the No. 1 cause of disability in this country.”

Tobacco production has dropped sharply in Kentucky, but the crop still generated about $400 million in income to the state’s farmers last year. Kentucky ranks as the nation’s top producer of burley tobacco, an ingredient in many cigarettes.

That historic tobacco culture has sustained smoking rates in Kentucky that have been well above the nation’s average.

Dr. B. Mark Evers, director of the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center, said Kentucky needs a statewide policy restricting cigarette smoking.

“My hope is that Kentucky is 100 percent smoke-free,” Evers said, drawing sustained applause from the audience at the health forum.

“This will send an important message throughout the United States, to see that Kentucky is 100 percent smoke-free.”

A number of Kentucky cities and counties have smoking bans covering about one-third of the state’s population, Evers said.

Legislation calling for a statewide smoking ban at workplaces and in public buildings died in Kentucky’s legislative session this year.

Eastern Kentucky is plagued by cancer, heart disease and diabetes rates that are well above the national average.

Hazard Mayor Nan Gorman pointed to lifestyle including diet as a reason for high disease rates.

Changing those habits won’t be easy, she said.

“It’s going to be learning and instilling certain things in young people’s minds and older people to improve their lifestyle,” she said. “The high rate of disease and poor health in eastern Kentucky is well documented. Now we want change.”

U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, who convened the health forum, said the area needs to rally behind a coordinated effort to turn around its health status, much like other regional campaigns to combat illegal drug use and litter.

“For our kids and grandkids and great-grandchildren, it will make all the difference in the world,” he said.

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