Over spring break Anna Jonker ’13, a biology major from Brandon, Wisconsin, joined Addy Stamenova ’13 and Lynne Weche ’12 in a health survey comparing the impacts of coal mining on health in coal and non-coal environments in West Virginia. The study is the first of its kind to conduct a door-to-door study in a carefully defined geographic area near mountaintop mining.
Jonker, who has an interest in public health and intends to go into the medical field, teamed up with Restoring Eden—a Christian environmental stewardship ministry with ties to Gordon College—and the Community Medicine Department at West Virginia University. Students with backgrounds in sustainable development, social work, environmental policy, and medicine volunteered to administer confidential anonymous health surveys and optional toxic contamination testing through collection and testing of hair samples for heavy metals.
Following a day of training in the International Review Board survey process, they joined students from Messiah and Dordt Colleges as they were briefed on the challenges the research would entail. “I was impressed and gratified these students would take time during their spring break to travel a long distance and help with this project,” said Dr. Michael Hendryx, associate professor, Department of Community Medicine, West Virginia University. “This is where leather hits pavement; that is, transforming personal beliefs into real action. This study wouldn’t have happened without them—I admire them all.”
According to a Gallup Poll, West Virginia has the lowest well-being in the nation. “I was shocked at the number of family members of the people we surveyed who had cancer,” said Jonker, who was paired with a student from Dordt College. Armed with packets, clipboards and hair sampling kits, they collected 20 samples for the research. “We knocked, they weren’t home. We knocked, they said ‘no.’ We knocked, and they waved us in before we even finished our introduction,” said Jonker. “We visited homes of the elderly, families with no financial resources, trying to understand what it would be like to live in an area with few jobs and poor health—in a region tied to unethical mountaintop coal removal practices.”
Mountaintop coal removal destroys mountaintops and surrounding valleys. It affects the water that flows down its hillside for people to drink, and the contaminated area is never left the same. “After my first night of surveying, I caught myself not wanting to get caught up in the issue since there seemed to be no easy answer,” said Jonker, who knew she would soon return to her nice Massachusetts dorm room and flip on the lights without thinking of the consequences to a nation in which 50 percent of our energy comes from coal. “It’s difficult to be passionate about something that has no easy solution, but I was reminded that this is exactly what we are called to in Isaiah 58: “Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.”
“Seeing my students travel to West Virginia to be a part of on-the-ground research on a current health problem reminds me again why I teach at Gordon College,” said Dorothy Boorse, professor of biology. “Some of my distant family lives in West Virginia—a beautiful place of natural resources but a poor economy. Unfortunately, mountaintop removal represents both a source of jobs and income and a source of poisoned water, destroyed forests and contaminated soil. Its destructive effects on the environment have been documented, but the effects on human health are just coming in.”
Boorse, who has testified before the United States Congress on wildlife protection, also serves as the faculty advisor of Advocates for a Sustainable Future (ASF)—a student group dedicated to sustainable living, learning and education on campus. Gordon graduate Kate Kirby ’10, previous ASF president at Gordon, is currently working at Restoring Eden. Through this internship she helped pull together the survey project with West Virginia University through student volunteer recruitment and logistical planning. “Kate worked very hard to make the study possible,” said Hendryx, who also serves as director of the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center at WVU. “I was impressed by the commitment to social and environmental justice that her efforts personify.”
“Scientists work to tease out how the world works and what effects come from the actions we take,” said Boorse. “Then we as Christians and community members must help to heal and transform our broken world. It will take all of us to help West Virginians attain a viable economy without the environmental and human health hazards that mountaintop removal currently represents.”