APPALACHIAN COMMUNITY HEALTH
College students volunteered on their spring breaks as health researchers for four consecutive years (2011-2014) to collect health data on families living in close proximity to mountaintop removal. As a control, data was also collected in communities far from mountaintop removal with populations of similiar culture and lifestyle.
Dr. Michael Hendryx, then professor of Community Health at West Virginia University, had listened to anecdotal stories that many people were sick in areas proximate to mountaintop removal. He looked into the matter and found that no health studies had ever been done in coal producing communities in the United States. Hendryx poured over Centers For Disease Control statistics and found disturbin trends of elevated rates of heart disease, respiratory disorders, cancer, birth defects, and premature mortality. He began publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Bo Webb brought Dr. Hendryx into contact with Restoring Eden's Peter Illyn, and a pioneering effort was launched in 2011 to survey families in MTR-riddled Boone County, WV and in pristine Pocahontas County. Dr. Hendryx published this study. This first study was published. Furthermore, that study raised the need to have further studies in other locales. Kentucky in 2012, Virginia in 2013, and West Virginia again in 2014. These studies all conclude strong correlation between populations in close proximity to mountaintop removal and worse health outcomes.
The logistics involved were considerable. First, a community heavily with mountaintop removal was selected, along with a corresponding control community of similar culture and lifestyle. Second, suitable housing for our volunteers was obtained, ideally with cooking facilities so that we could prepare our own meals at a low cost. Third, we had to recruit students within the time constraints of their college spring breaks. Fourth, our project had to meet Institutional Review Board (IRB) standards and project approval. Fifth, we had to orient and train students upon arrival for the survey process, Appalachian culture, and teamwork coordination. Sixth, we had daily mapping, transportation, and debriefing logistics. Seventh, we had to assemble the data to forward to Dr. Hendryx, who then had it tabulated and analyzed. And finally, we had to raise considerable funds to run the program, and judiciously spend those funds within our budget.
Several hundred student volunteers along with a number of supervisory personnel and volunteer professionals have helped out over the course of these four years. In addition, a number of organizations have provided logistical support, guides, meals, and training. These include Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Environmental Foundation, Southern Mountain Appalachian Stewards (SAMS),Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF), and Southern Appalachia Labor School (SALS). Major financial support has come from Civil Society Institute and The One Foundation through funding vectored through Christians For The Mountains. Several of the colleges provided vans. Student volunteers typically paid for some of their expenses, with scholarships to talented volunteers with limited funds.
These many student volunteers, the majority from conservative evangelical Christian colleges along with some Catholic and secular schools, gave up Florida vacations or time with family along with personal finances to conduct important research that we hope will lead to health safeguards for some of the sickest populations in the United States. Many of these students had epiphany moments that deepened their faith commitments, understandings of the connections between "turning on the light switch" and justice, and in some cases, even a change in college major and career path. So the dividends are two-fold—important research is gained, and student lives are transformed. In addition, those of us with these wonderful student volunteers have our hope rekindled.
Sufficient studies have now been conducted on community health in coal-producing areas in central Appalachia to develop public policy to safeguard populations. The ACHE Act H.R. 912 is an example of introduced legislation.
Dr. Hendryx and Restoring Eden with financial backing by CFTM conducted Front Porch Justice, a preliminary study in southside Chicago in March 2015 with student volunteers conducting family health surveys in communities close to uncovered Petcoke piles. Preliminary results point to correleation of Petcoke-related air pollution from wind-induced dust and worse health outcomes. These minority neighborhoods are primarily poor and African-American or Hispanic. Our volunteer teams had spanish speakers for spanish surveys. Further studies will be conducte in late 2015 and in 2016, including air sample collection.
Restoring Eden, Dr. Hendryx, and likely CFTM are in the planning process of working with African-American colleges and leaders in Alabama to study the effects of coal ash pollution on nearby neighborhoods. Student volunteers would use the survey method pioneered by us.
Bo Webb and Peter Illyn
This project was life-changing! Students came down to help out with community health research and went back to their college campuses fired-up in their faith to God and commitment to serve. Being around these talented, servant-hearted young people was hope-renewing, too, as we saw God powerfully at work in this rising generation.
And yet there was much more, since the research data these volunteers gathered is very useful in probing into the causes of why community health in central Appalachia is rock-bottom in the nation. This research can lead toward ways to save lives and improve life quality for the people living in this region.
This project has been an investment in the future of our Christian youth as well as an investment in the future well-being of central Appalachia.
Students from the following schools have participated in the Appalachian Community Health Survey Project over the 4 years:
- Bethel University (MN)
- Northwestern College (MN)
- St. Olaf College (MN)
- St. Catherine University (MN)
- Wheaton College (IL)
- Olivet Nazarene University (IL)
- Mercy College of Applied Sciences (IA)
- Dordt College (IA)
- Calvin College (MI)
- Hope College (MI)
- University of Michigan (MI)
- Anderson University (IN)
- Case Western Reserve University (OH)
- Malone University (OH)
- Geneva College (PA)
- Messiah College (PA)
- Carson-Newman College (TN)
- Lipscomb University (TN)
- University of the South – Sewanee (TN)
- Samford University (AL)
- University of Portland (OR)
- University of Wisconsin
- Gordon College
Dr. Michael Hendryx
(picture on left)