Boom or Bust: Hard on Health of Mining Communities

UBC Bridge Program student Silvana Costa - photo courtesy of Min. of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources
UBC Bridge Program student Silvana Costa – photo courtesy of Min. of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

A new study links prosperity to health in B.C. mining towns

By Hilary Thomson

It’s either boom or bust. Extreme economic cycles are a fact of life for residents of many B.C. mining towns, but how do these shifts in prosperity affect the health of residents?

That’s what an interdisciplinary team of UBC researchers wants to find out. In a three-year study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), they will look at how risk of cardiovascular disease, mental disorders and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are linked to economic indicators in B.C. mining communities.

“We hope to provide the mining industry with baseline data they can use to include community issues as part of sustainability planning,” says Mieke Koehoorn, an assistant professor of Health Care and Epidemiology and principal investigator on the study. “We’re looking at both short-term and long-term health effects and how economic cycles affect the entire mining community.”

Students in the Bridge Program, a UBC interdisciplinary graduate fellowship program, prepared the CIHR proposal as part of their course work. Some students in the group had a background in mining engineering and knew that research into health effects was needed. This is the first study in Canada that relates economic indicators to health outcomes in mining communities.

Negar Elmieh, a third-year PhD candidate at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, is co-investigator on the study.

“This project interests me because it means working with an interdisciplinary group,” says Elmieh, who is a Bridge Fellow. “A diverse team of investigators allows for a much more comprehensive study that examines the real pressures a mining community can face.”

Mining is the second largest industry in B.C. It directly employs more than 6,500 people and generated $4 billion in revenue in 2003, according to the Mining Association of British Columbia.

The first part of the study involves creating a B.C. Mining Health Atlas. Investigators will study anonymous health data of almost 127,000 residents — both mine workers and other community members — aged 15 years and older in 61 mining communities.

Using data from 1991-2002, researchers will compare health risks of these residents with that of individuals living in communities with a diverse economy. Data will be drawn from the B.C. Linked Health Database that records medical services for B.C. residents. Researchers will track acute and chronic health problems, including doctor visits or hospitalizations for heart disease and high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and suicides as well as STIs. They will also review rates and type of prescription drugs dispensed.

The second part of the study will look at the relationship of the health problems to boom and bust economic conditions in the mining and comparison communities.

Sites include Tumbler Ridge in the Peace River district, where currently closed Quintette and Bullmoose coalmines may re-open because of the recent boom in coal prices; Williams Lake, the site of Gibraltar copper mine; and sites in the East Kootenays, including the zinc and lead mining town of Kimberley, magnesite mining community Radium Hot Springs and Sparwood, a coal mining site.

Also included on the project team were: Malcolm Scoble, head of the Dept. of Mining Engineering, Aleck Ostry, associate professor in the Dept. of Health Care and Epidemiology; and Bridge students Jennifer Ardiel, Silvana Costa and Eric Mazzi.

The Bridge Program links the faculties of medicine, applied science and graduate studies. For more information, visit www.bridge.ubc.ca.

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