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Geologic Column

Is there a doctor in the house?
Lisa A. Rossbacher

Geoscientists can help. A lot. But if we wait to be asked, we could wait a very long time.

The issue is medical geology. The time is now.

We’ve known some of the linkages between geology and health for thousands of years: Hippocrates knew about environment and disease; Aristotle wrote about lead poisoning. Other relationships are still waiting to be discovered. One of the early systematic studies of medical geology happened in Georgia, about 40 years ago, looking at the geographic distribution of cardiovascular disease. Geologists know better than most people that where something happens is often linked to why it occurs, whether it’s earthquakes, volcanoes or thyroid disease.

The full list of geological factors that influence human health is long: trace elements, radon, volcanic dust, VOG (volcanic fog), organics, radionuclides, microbes, asbestos and pathogens.

The scale of the problem is huge. For example, the residential use of biomass fuels (coal, lignite, peat) affects human health by generating particulates, releasing gases and mobilizing trace elements. These problems affect the health of 3.5 billion people worldwide — more than the number of people affected by AIDS, heart disease and cancer … combined! Of course, the health impacts of these respiratory problems may not be as severe as other diseases, but the number of people affected is staggering.

GIS (geographical information systems) is one of the recent tools that have underscored the relationship between geology and health. Any map of the distribution of the West Nile virus, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), monkeypox or asbestosis shows geographic and geologic relationships in their spatial distribution. These relationships are relatively obvious to geologists, but not always as clear to the medical community.

The geosciences could greatly benefit public health by providing warnings of possible outbreaks. A classic connection between health and geology is seen in valley fever, a respiratory ailment caused by inhalation of the soil fungus Coccidioides immitis. Its occurrence, which has a strong correlation with earthquakes, is significant, with 7,500 reported new cases per year in the United States and an annual economic impact of more than $60 million. The sharp spike in reported cases after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California is unmistakable; the linkage to dust (and spores) in the air following the earthquake and its aftershocks is dramatic.

Understanding the relationship between geology and public health concerns may result in a variety of responses. When public health officials are aware of a problem, such as valley fever, the responses may range from warnings for people to stay indoors to an alert to the medical community to prepare for treating a larger-than-normal number of cases. If accurate earthquake predictions ever become a reality, we can be sure that the medical community will want to be part of the information loop, too.

Following the tragedy of September 11, geoscientists had the tools to determine the health risks associated with the dust in New York City. They found that the amounts of asbestos, organic materials and hazardous trace elements were relatively low; most of the dust was calcium oxides derived from pulverized dry wall. If wetted, the dust was very alkaline, but the geological analyses found that it was no more hazardous than dust around a typical construction site. At a location that has become emblematic of risk, this information from the geoscience community has been providing some level of reassurance.

Robert Finkelman of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Reston is one of the people advocating better collaboration between the geosciences and the medical community, to improve both our understanding of health issues and our ability to prevent and treat diseases. He makes a strong argument about how prevention is less expensive than the cure; proactive efforts by the geoscience community can help address major global concerns about human health. In an ideal world, Finkelman would have all health care professionals and medical researchers learn mineralogy, GIS, geochemistry and hydrology. In the real world, he acknowledges, the best solution may be for the geosciences to provide interdisciplinary courses that emphasize the relevance of geology to health.

Several schools are already implementing this interdisciplinary approach, to emphasize the link between the geosciences and human health and welfare. Courses in medical geology exist at Brooklyn College and the University of Akron. Classes on geoscience and public health are taught at George Washington University. East Georgia College is developing modules on medical geology for use in other classes.

Other current efforts to strengthen these connections include both national and international emphases. The International Union of Geological Scientists is including a focus on medical geology as part of the upcoming “Year of Planet Earth.” The international geological community is in the process of identifying funding to support this work. In April, USGS held a national conference in Reston on natural science and public health, focusing on the role of the geosciences. H. Catherine Skinner and Anthony Berger just published Geology and Health: Closing the Gap, a collection of papers from earth scientists, biologists and medical specialists on global health issues. And, Finkelman and colleagues from the United States, Sweden, and Britain are working on a new book, Medical Geology: Earth Science in Support of Public Health Protection, to be published in 2003. They also published an excellent summary of the issues involved in medical geology in a cover article in the November 2001 issue of Geotimes.

An encouraging sign for this collaboration came recently from Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. In June 2003, she observed that “SARS is a very sobering reminder of the global community we share.” That global community is what geoscientists know best.
The geosciences have a lot to offer the medical community, and we wait to be asked for our input at our own peril. Now is the time for the geosciences to be proactive about offering our knowledge, experience, perspective and expertise. We will all benefit.


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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