Making a case for Central Appalachia

Blue Ridge Mountains

An associate professor of environmental health in the Department of Population Health Sciences, Julia Gohlke is leading a transdisciplinary team of experts from colleges across Virginia Tech to examine birth outcomes in Central Appalachia and their association with environmental change between 1990 and 2015.

The team — Associate Professor of Geography Korine Kolivras; Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Linsey Marr; Associate Professor of Biological Systems Engineering Leigh-Anne Krometis; biological systems engineering student Ethan Smith; geography graduate student Molly McKnight; Assistant Professor of Statistics Shyam Ranganathan; statistics doctoral student Christopher Grubb; and biomedical and veterinary sciences graduate student Lauren Buttling — is uniquely equipped to investigate associations between adverse birth outcomes and pregnant women living in air or watersheds of active surface mines.

Although previous studies have examined birth outcomes and associated them to the amount of mining within the county of birth, Gohlke says that these findings — while an appropriate first step — can be confounding. In response, the team is examining spatially and temporally resolved relationships using changes in surface mine boundaries and address-level birth records to examine the rate of adverse birth outcomes within the same geographical area during three periods: pre-mining, active mining, and post-mining.

The team is making the case that the rural landscape of Central Appalachia and its long history of resource extraction offer a unique opportunity to develop methods for examining health outcomes associated with resource extraction that may be applicable to rural areas across the U.S. and beyond.

A year into a two-year National Institutes of Health R21 grant, the team hopes its research will aid in defining the underpinnings of health inequities in Central Appalachia, ultimately leading to improvements in research, policy, and practice.