Central Appalachia may be home to lush green mountain ranges brimming with diverse plant and animal species, but within those mountains lie some of the most dramatic human health inequities in the nation.

A Virginia Tech interdisciplinary research team addressing this inequity argues in a review paper published in Reviews on Environment Health that more research needs to be conducted to determine how the unique topography and industries of Central Appalachia, including coal mining and natural gas extraction, result in environmental exposures that impact the health of people living there. A great deal of research has looked at how environmental exposures from industrial processes affect biodiversity, but little has examined the connection between those exposures and human health disparities.

The team, which includes Korine Kolivras, associate professor of geography, was originally formed in 2014 and received support from a $20,000 seed grant from Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. This support helped team members continue ongoing research in Tazewell County, Virginia, including interviews with residents and preliminary water and air testing.

Kolivras, who specializes in examining links between environmental variability and human health using geospatial technologies, was surprised by the lack of research on human health in Central Appalachia and hopes to expand on the limited research that does exist. “There’s been little attention on land-cover change impacts on human health in the region in the first place, so that will be a clear improvement on the existing literature,” she explained.

“The few studies that have examined human health impacts, particularly those related to mining, have been conducted at a broad scale, which is not the appropriate scale to examine the spatial patterns and underlying processes related to interactions between human health and land-cover change,” she continued. “We will conduct a fine-scale analysis that will allow us to link localized human health outcomes to environmental exposures related to nearby land-cover change.”

Kolivras says she enjoys collaborating with researchers with different areas of expertise. “Each person on the team provides a unique contribution to this larger puzzle, and our expertise spans the humanities, social science, public health, biophysical sciences, and engineering,” she said.

In June, the team was awarded $75,000 to expand and continue their project for another year under Virginia Tech’s Global Systems Science Destination Area. Their project will initially focus on Central Appalachia but may eventually grow to include rural communities worldwide.

Read the full press release.