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The International Medical Geology Association
Robert B. Finkelman, University of Texas at Dallas
Jose A. Centeno, The Joint Pathology Center, Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic, Washington DC
Olle Selinus, Linneus University, Kalmar Sweden

The International Medical Geology Association (IMGA) is dedicated to advancing knowledge of how the natural environment can impact animal and human health. The IMGA does this through encouraging collaboration between geoscientists and biomedical/public health scientists on a wide range of environmental health issues caused by geologic materials and geologic processes (Figure 1). The IMGA facilitates communication on these issues through its web site (http://www.medicalgeology.org/), its Newsletter, books, journal articles, short courses, support for student research and travel grants, sponsored sessions at scientific meetings, and a biannual series of MEDGEO conferences. Inspiring young students to study medical geology and raising the public’s awareness of the importance of medical geology to society are two key goals of the International Medical Geology Association. As an international organization, one IMGA aim is to encourage global interdisciplinary research, training and educational opportunities at the biomedical-geoscience interface, promoting the importance of this emerging discipline to our global society in addressing human health challenges created or exacerbated by the natural environment.  

The natural environment can impact health in a variety of ways. The composition of rocks and minerals are imprinted on the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the food that we eat. For many people this transference of minerals and the trace elements they contain is beneficial as it is the primary source of nutrients (such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and about a dozen other elements) that are essential for a healthy life. But in some cases the local geology can cause significant health problems because there is an insufficient amount of an essential element (such as selenium) or an excess of a potentially toxic element (such as arsenic or fluorine, Figure 2). In other cases a substance such as carbon dioxide gas, dust-sized particles of asbestos or quartz (silicosis), or certain naturally occurring organic compounds may become harmful.  

Current and future medical geology concerns include: dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water in dozens of countries including the U.S.; mercury emissions from coal combustion and its bioaccumulation in the environment, the impacts of mercury and lead mobilizations in regions where artisanal gold mining is conducted; the residual health impacts of geologic processes such as volcanic emissions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and natural dust; exposure to fibrous minerals such as asbestos and erionite; and the health impacts of global climate change. Billions of people, most in developing countries, are afflicted by these and other environmental health issues that can be avoided, prevented, mitigated or minimized through research and educational outreach supported and provided by IMGA.

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definition of medical geology
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Robert Finkelman

Figure 1. Medical geology is at the nexus of geoscience, public health, and environmental science. These and many other disciplines are commonly required to determine the cause of an environmental health problem and identify practical solutions to these problems.

diseases caused by geological factors
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Images from Baoshan Zheng (a, b),
Fasil Ayele , NIH (c), Jose Centeno (d)

Figure 2. a) Lesions on the hands of a man, caused by drinking arsenic contaminated water. b) Dental fluorosis caused by fluorine liberated from burning coal briquettes. c) Podoconiosis caused by contact with clays in volcanic soils. d) Goiter occurs due to a lack of iodine in the diet.


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EarthNote No. 9 , © 2010-2014 American Geosciences Institute,
P. Patrick Leahy, Director, 4220 King Street, Alexandria VA 22302