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Cancer incidence and mortality rates are high in West Virginia compared to the rest of the United States of America. Previous research has suggested that exposure to activities of the coal mining industry may contribute to elevated cancer mortality, although exposure measures have been limited. This study tests alternative specifications of exposure to mining activity to determine whether a measure based on location of mines, processing plants, coal slurry impoundments and underground slurry injection sites relative to population levels is superior to a previously-reported measure of exposure based on tons mined at the county level, in the prediction of age-adjusted cancer mortality rates. To this end, we utilize two geographical information system (GIS) techniques – exploratory spatial data analysis and inverse distance mapping – to construct new statistical analyses. Total, respiratory and “other” age-adjusted cancer mortality rates in West Virginia were found to be more highly associated with the GIS-exposure measure than the tonnage measure, before and after statistical control for smoking rates. The superior performance of the GIS measure, based on where people in the state live relative to mining activity, suggests that activities of the industry contribute to cancer mortality. Further confirmation of observed phenomena is necessary with person-level studies, but the results add to the body of evidence that coal mining poses environmental risks to population health in West Virginia.
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