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TEDMED 2017

Michael Hendryx: The shocking danger of mountaintop removal -- and why it must end

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Research investigator Michael Hendryx studies mountaintop removal, an explosive type of surface coal mining used in Appalachia that comes with unexpected health hazards. In this data-packed talk, Hendryx presents his research and tells the story of the pushback he's received from the coal industry, advocating for the ethical obligation scientists have to speak the truth.

- Research investigator
Michael Hendryx is focused on the impacts of uneven environmental exposures faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Full bio

Let's say that you wanted
to conduct an experiment.
00:25
In this experiment,
00:29
you randomly assign people
to live in blasting zones
00:31
or in control locations without explosives
going off over their heads.
00:35
They live in the community for years,
00:41
just downwind and downstream
00:43
from sites where tons of explosives
are used almost daily.
00:45
And millions of gallons
of water contaminated.
00:49
With random assignment,
you could carefully study
00:52
the long-term health effects
of living in these blasting communities
00:55
without a bunch of annoying
confounders and covariates.
00:59
Random assignment does wonders.
01:04
That would be a rigorous,
powerful scientific inquiry
01:07
into the effects of these
environmental exposures.
01:11
Of course, such a study
could never be done.
01:14
Most scientists wouldn't have
the stomach for it.
01:17
The institutional review board
would never approve it;
01:20
it would never pass human subjects review,
01:23
because it would be unethical, immoral.
01:25
And yet in effect,
it is happening right now.
01:29
In my mind, this prompts some questions.
01:33
What is the ethical obligation
01:35
of the scientists who believes
populations are in danger?
01:37
How much evidence is enough
to be confident of our conclusions?
01:41
Where is the line between
scientific certainty and the need to act?
01:46
The unplanned experiment
that is happening right now
01:52
is called mountaintop removal.
01:54
The abbreviation for it is MTR.
01:56
It is a form of surface coal mining
01:59
that takes place in Appalachia,
here in the United States.
02:01
MTR occurs in four states: Virginia,
West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
02:05
Over 1.2 million acres
have been mined in this way.
02:11
This is an area about the size of Delaware
02:15
but it is spread over a footprint
02:17
as large as Vermont
and New Hampshire combined.
02:20
The process involves clear-cutting
ancient Appalachian forest,
02:24
home to some of the richest
biodiversity on the planet.
02:28
The trees are typically burned
or dumped into adjacent valleys.
02:31
Then, to reach the buried coal seams,
02:36
explosives are used to remove
up to 800 feet of mountain elevation.
02:39
Over 1,500 tons of explosives
02:46
are used for coal mining
in West Virginia alone.
02:48
Every day.
02:52
Rock and soil debris
is dumped over the valley sides
02:55
where it permanently buries
headwater streams.
02:57
So far, over 500 mountains
have been destroyed.
03:00
About 2,000 miles of streams
have been permanently buried.
03:06
Water emerging from the base
of the valley fills is highly contaminated
03:09
and remains contaminated for decades.
03:13
The coal then has to be
chemically treated,
03:16
crushed and washed before it can be
transported to power plants and burned.
03:18
This cleaning takes place on-site.
03:23
The process produces more air pollution
03:25
and contaminates billions
of gallons of water with metals,
03:28
sulfates, cleaning chemicals
and other impurities.
03:32
All of this to produce three percent
of US electricity demand --
03:37
only three percent
of US electricity demand.
03:42
As you can appreciate, this prompts
all sorts of other questions.
03:47
What are the health impacts
of mountaintop-removal mining?
03:51
There are over a million people
who live in counties where MTR takes place
03:53
and millions more downstream and downwind.
03:58
What has been the response
of industry and government
04:03
when these issues are documented?
04:05
And again, what is the ethical
obligation of science
04:08
when faced with this disturbing situation?
04:11
I began to research this issue in 2006.
04:15
I had just taken a job
at West Virginia University.
04:18
Before then, I hadn't done
any research related to coal.
04:21
But I started to hear stories
04:25
from people who lived
in these mining communities.
04:27
They said that the water
they drank was not clean,
04:30
that the air they breathed was polluted.
04:34
They would tell me
about their own illnesses
04:37
or illnesses in their family.
04:39
They were worried about how common
cancer was in their neighborhoods.
04:41
I met with many people
in southern West Virginia
04:45
and eastern Kentucky
04:47
to listen to those stories
and hear their concerns.
04:48
I searched the scientific literature
04:51
and was surprised to learn
that nothing had been published
04:53
on the public health effects
of coal mining in the United States.
04:56
Let me say that again --
05:00
nothing had been published
on the public health effects
05:01
of coal mining in the US.
05:04
So I thought, "I can make
a new contribution,
05:06
no matter what I find,
05:10
to either confirm these concerns
or to alleviate them."
05:12
I had no personal
or organizational agenda.
05:16
Many of my colleagues
initially were skeptical
05:20
that there would be any link
between public health and mining.
05:23
They predicted that the health problems
could be explained by poverty
05:26
or by lifestyle issues,
like smoking and obesity.
05:30
When I started, I thought
maybe they would be right.
05:34
We started by analyzing existing databases
05:38
that allowed us to link
population health to mining activity
05:40
and to control statistically for age, sex,
race, smoking, obesity, poverty,
05:44
education, health insurance
and others we could measure.
05:50
We found evidence that confirmed
the concerns of the residents,
05:54
and we started to publish our findings.
05:58
As a very brief summary,
06:01
we found that people who live
where mountaintop removal takes place
06:02
have significantly higher levels
of cardiovascular disease,
06:06
kidney disease and chronic
lung disease like COPD.
06:11
Death rates from cancer
are significantly elevated,
06:15
especially for lung cancer.
06:18
We've seen evidence
for higher rates of birth defects
06:20
and for babies born at low birth weight.
06:23
The difference in total mortality
equates to about 1,200 excess deaths
06:26
every year in MTR areas,
controlling for other risks.
06:30
Twelve hundred excess deaths every year.
06:34
Not only are death rates higher,
06:38
but they increase
as the levels of mining go up
06:40
in a dose-response manner.
06:42
Next, we started to conduct
community door-to-door health surveys.
06:44
We surveyed people
living within a few miles of MTR
06:48
versus similar rural
communities without mining.
06:51
Survey results show higher levels
of personal and family illness,
06:55
self-reported health status is poorer,
06:59
and illness symptoms across
a broad spectrum are more common.
07:01
These studies are only associational.
07:05
We all know that correlation
does not prove causation.
07:09
These studies did not include data
07:13
on the actual environmental conditions
in mining communities.
07:14
So we started to collect
and report on that.
07:17
We found that violations
of public drinking-water standards
07:22
are seven times more common
in MTR areas versus non-mining areas.
07:25
We collected air samples
07:30
and found that particulate matter
is elevated in mining communities,
07:32
especially in the ultra-fine range.
07:35
The dust in mining communities
contains a complex mixture,
07:37
but includes high levels of silica,
a known lung carcinogen,
07:41
and potentially harmful organic compounds.
07:45
We used the dust in laboratory experiments
07:48
and found that it induced
cardiovascular dysfunction in rats.
07:51
The dust also promoted the development
07:55
of lung cancer in human
in vitro lung cells.
07:57
This is just a quick summary
of some of our studies.
08:02
The coal industry does not like
what we have to say.
08:06
Neither does the government
in coal country.
08:11
Just like the tobacco industry
paid for research
08:14
to defend the safety of smoking,
08:17
so the coal industry
has tried to do the same
08:19
by paying people to write papers
claiming that MTR is safe.
08:21
Lawyers have sent me harassing demands
under the Freedom of Information Act,
08:25
eventually denied by the courts.
08:29
I'd been attacked at public testimony
at a Congressional hearing
08:32
by a congressman
with ties to the energy industry.
08:36
One governor has publicly declared
that he refuses to read the research.
08:39
And after a meeting
with a member of Congress,
08:45
in which I specifically
shared my research,
08:48
I later heard that representative say
they knew nothing about it.
08:51
I worked with scientists
at the US Geological Survey
08:55
on environmental sampling
for more than two years.
08:58
And just as they were starting
to publish their findings,
09:01
they were suddenly instructed
by their superiors
09:03
to stop work on this project.
09:06
In August of this year,
the National Academy of Sciences
09:08
was suddenly instructed
by the federal government
09:12
to stop their independent review
09:15
of the public health consequences
of surface mining.
09:17
These actions are politically
motivated, in my view.
09:20
But there is opposition
from researchers, too.
09:25
At conferences or meetings,
they express skepticism.
09:29
OK, we are all taught,
as scientists, to be skeptical.
09:32
They ask, "What about
this possible explanation?"
09:37
"Have you considered
that alternative interpretation?"
09:40
They wonder, "There must be
some confounder that we missed.
09:43
Some other variable
we haven't accounted for."
09:47
"An in vitro study, what does that prove?"
09:50
"A rat study -- how do we know the same
effects would be found in people?"
09:53
Maybe so.
09:59
Technically, you have to acknowledge
that they could be right,
10:01
but you know, maybe these health problems
10:03
are not the result
of some unmeasured confound.
10:07
Maybe they result
from blowing up mountains
10:11
over people's heads.
10:14
(Laughter)
10:16
(Applause)
10:18
There can always be doubt,
if doubt is what you seek.
10:25
Because we can never do that
defining experiment.
10:28
Any next study
must always be associational.
10:31
So perhaps you can understand
why I've started to wonder,
10:35
how much evidence is enough?
10:38
I've published over 30 papers
on this topic so far.
10:40
Along with my coauthors, other researchers
have added to the evidence,
10:44
yet government doesn't want to listen,
10:48
and the industry says
it's only correlational.
10:50
They say Appalachians
have lifestyle issues.
10:53
As though it had never occurred to us
10:55
to control for smoking or obesity
or poverty or education
10:57
or health insurance.
11:00
We controlled for all of those and more.
11:02
There comes a point
where we don't need more research,
11:05
where we can't ask people
to be unwilling research subjects
11:09
so we can do the next study.
11:13
As scientists, we follow
the data wherever it goes,
11:17
but sometimes data can only take us so far
11:20
and we have to decide,
as thinking, feeling human beings,
11:22
what it means and when it is time to act.
11:25
I think that is true, not only for MTR
but for other situations
11:28
where evidence is strong
and concerning but imperfect.
11:31
And when failing to act if you're wrong
means people's lives.
11:36
It may seem strange
that there is any controversy
11:42
over the health effects
of mountaintop-removal mining.
11:45
But somehow, this subject has wound up
11:49
in a scientific
and political twilight zone
11:51
alongside the debate over climate change
11:53
or the argument years ago
11:55
about whether or not
smoking caused cancer.
11:57
In this twilight zone, much of the data
seems to point to one conclusion.
12:00
But the economics or the politics
or the prevailing public view
12:04
insist on the opposite conclusion.
12:07
When you're a scientist
and you think you have a valid insight
12:11
where the health
of entire populations is at stake
12:14
but you find yourself trapped
12:16
in this twilight zone
of denial and disbelief,
12:18
what is your moral and ethical obligation?
12:22
Obviously, scientists are responsible
for telling the truth as they see it,
12:26
based on evidence.
12:30
Simply stated, we have an obligation
to stand up for the data.
12:32
It can be extremely frustrating
to wait around for public opinion
12:36
or political consensus to catch up
to the scientific understanding.
12:39
But the more controversial the subject
and the more frustrating the debate,
12:42
the more critical it is for scientists
to preserve our objectivity
12:47
and our reputation for integrity.
12:51
Because integrity is the coin of the realm
12:53
in scientific and public policy debate.
12:56
In the long run,
12:58
our reputation for integrity
is the most powerful tool that we have,
13:00
even more powerful than the data itself.
13:03
Without an acknowledged integrity
on the part of scientists,
13:07
no amount of data
will ever convince people
13:10
to believe painful or difficult truths.
13:12
But when we cultivate and guard
our reputation for integrity,
13:15
when we patiently stand up for the data
and keep doing the studies
13:21
and keep calmly bringing
the results to the public,
13:24
that's when we have our greatest impact.
13:26
Eventually, scientific truth
does and will win out.
13:30
How many lives will be lost while we wait?
13:38
Too many already.
13:41
But prevail we will.
13:43
Thank you.
13:45
(Applause)
13:47

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About the speaker:

Michael Hendryx - Research investigator
Michael Hendryx is focused on the impacts of uneven environmental exposures faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

Why you should listen

In 2006, Michael Hendryx started a research program on public health disparities for people in Appalachia who live in proximity to coal mining, with a focus on mountaintop removal. This research has shown that people who live close to mountaintop removal are at increased risk for a wide set of health problems including respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, cancer and more. Hendryx has published more than peer-reviewed research papers and has been an investigator on numerous grants and contracts. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health.

More profile about the speaker
Michael Hendryx | Speaker | TED.com