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