The Earth, Source of Health and Hazards:
An Introduction to Medical Geology
by Catherine Skinner
Links between the natural environment and human health have been suggested for centuries. Greeks and Romans believed “ill winds” punished seafarers and knew that some vapors could kill. In the sixteenth century, Georgius Agricola depicted miners dying of inhalation problems. Cataclysmic upheavals such as volcanic explosions were part of ancient lore and implanted in our consciousness many times since the Mount Vesuvius (Herculaneum) disaster in 79 ad and Krakatoa in 1815. The Laki, Iceland, eruptions of 1783–1784, documented by Reverend Steingrimsson (1783–1784), darkened the European continent with particulates and gases that traveled great distances and led to many deaths within Europe. Mortality as a result of this disaster remains under investigation (Gratton et al. 2005).
Today we are very conscious of some natural hazards, no matter where they occur. Announcements by radio and television arrive within hours of an event, advising of the number of people affected. Early warning systems can be used to moderate such obvious public health impacts, provided detection systems are appropriately situated and monitored, and the population at risk alerted. There is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States and caused such devastation on August 26, 2005, has had a remarkable effect in the United States, while the recent earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan produced headlines across the world. People react to crises, and they are beginning to realize that there are global events about which we can do little except to anticipate, prepare for, and respond through supporting those people badly impacted. Public awareness and outcry have given way to the realization that we need a better understanding of the connections between the Earth and its inhabitants. Beyond recording the details of human suffering and deaths and economic impacts of disaster, it is now appropriate, indeed necessary, to consider geologic, geographic, and climatic contributions to public health. Earth materials, systems, cycles, and processes are publicly discussed and no longer novel.
The connection between Earth and its hazards is an active area of research with a variety of names; two that have been used in geology are geomedicine and medical geology (Berger 2003). There are many interesting aspects of such an interdisciplinary amalgamation, and this review selects a few examples where knowledge of Earth sciences has contributed to the understanding of specific health hazards. There are other approaches and many other examples that could be enumerated. It is exciting to consider the potential, and cross-disciplinary, research that can contribute to such personal and humane aspects of life and living in the twenty-first century. The opportunities for future scientific research to address health issues fromthe geosciences perspective are legion, but demand broad-based, multidisciplinary science, cooperation, and commitment.
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Excerpts from the paper:
The sources of water on Earth. Percentages from Dingman 2002.
Schematic diagram of the human respiratory system. The gross anatomy and sizes of the airways in the air flow system. After Skinner et al. 1988, figure 3.1, p. 110.
Satellite images of the aerosol index and SO2 concentrations during Mt. St. Helens eruption May 18 and May 19, 1980. On these two days, the figure shows the eastward trajectory over time of the particulates and gases. Courtesy of Roland Geerken, Center for Earth Observation, Yale University.
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