From the Editor

The influence of earth materials on human health is taking on a new significance as medical science continues to corral our greatest health threats, such as plagues, malaria, cancer and heart disease. During the last century, world population grew from 1.65 to 6.1 billion people, an increase of 270 percent. During the same 100 years, our average global life expectancy more than doubled from 30 to 67 years. As more people are around longer, and as more people interact with Earth and its materials, it stands to reason that the impact of earth materials on their health and longevity takes on greater importance. So almost without knowing it, those who know the most about earth materials, namely earth scientists, are being presented with an expanding field for research and public service, namely medical geology. We devote this issue to diverse topics that illustrate the breadth and significance of earth science in human health.

In "Medical Geology," Robert Finkelman and others introduce topics as broad as soot particles in the lungs of the 5,000-plus-year-old Tyrolean Iceman, to arsenic poisoning among people in Guizhou Province, China, resulting from the roasting of chili peppers and corn over arsenic-enriched coal fires. There must be thousands of similar but unrecognized health risks related to earth materials. Our third feature describes the histories of a few.

In "African Dust in America," Joseph Prospero reviews research on the transport of Saharan dust to North America and its potential health impacts. He notes that Darwin reported dust falls while sailing on the Beagle off North Africa's west coast. Such dust is now known to travel at least as far as Maine, carrying fungi, bacteria and potential pathogens.

Our last feature, Sarah Ryker's article on mapping arsenic in groundwater, draws attention to the importance of the earth scientists' skills of proper sample collection, storage and preservation, analysis, and the representation and interpretation of the resulting data. That's second nature to earth scientists. Characterizing earth materials and interpreting their significance to earth processes and earth history is what earth science is all about. But using this information for human health imparts a different spin than earth scientists are used to.

And of course, earth scientists have long been involved in one of the more dramatic ways the planet's processes affect people: natural hazards. In this month's Comment, David Howell describes the start of the Crowding the Rim initiative, which seeks to bring many people together to prepare growing populations around the Pacific Rim for the hazards they inevitably face.

The purpose of medical geology is to establish relations between earth materials and human health issues. Physicians, medical researchers and public health officials will continue to identify the health issues, and earth scientists can characterize earth materials until the cows come home. However, only through collaboration can we achieve life-saving connections between the earth sciences and life sciences. There is a great opportunity for earth science societies, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, government agencies and others to turn up the heat on collaborative symposia, research and education initiatives.

Believe your compass,

Samuel S. Adams

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