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Soc Sci Med. 2003 Aug;57(3):437-51.

"It wasn't the plague we expected." Parents' perceptions of the health and environmental impact of opencast coal mining.

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School of Population and Health Sciences, Medical School, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Framlington Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH, UK.


This paper explores the health and environmental concerns of parents living close to opencast coal mines in the UK and characterises parental risk perceptions in relation to children's asthma status. This qualitative research was undertaken in tandem with an epidemiological investigation aiming to establish whether opencast coal mining adversely affected children's respiratory health. Using a social construction approach, the centrality of health claims in environmental health disputes becomes apparent for a number of claims-makers. We focus on claims of non-activist participants in an epidemiological study, hitherto unknown and unexplored. In all but one case health claims were anticipated rather than realised. No link was found between children's asthma and exacerbation of the condition although some parents of children with asthma had greater concerns during the opencast planning stage. In fact, parents' discourses on children's health largely mirrored the epidemiological findings which showed increased dust, no increase in asthma prevalence but higher rates of general practitioner (GP) consultations for respiratory conditions suggesting that the commonly observed lack of convergence between lay and expert knowledge should not be taken for granted. In spite of this overall lack of an experienced health effect, the sociological data highlight respondents' recognition of the place-specificity of exposures, hence, the reasons why opencast proposals are likely to continue to be met with opposition. Environmental health studies which incorporate epidemiological and social approaches simultaneously have a better chance of arriving at conclusions meaningful to affected communities and facilitate greater understanding of environmental disputes.

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