EarthWord – Medical Geology

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Medical Geology is an earth science specialty that concerns how geologic materials and earth processes affect human health. 

EarthWords is an on-going series in which we shed some light on the complicated, often difficult-to-pronounce language of science. Think of us as your terminology tour-guides, and meet us back here every week for a new word!

Scientists preparing sediment quality sampling supplies for deployment in advance of Hurricane Joaquin.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists preparing sediment quality sampling supplies for deployment in advance of Hurricane Joaquin. Credit: Shawn Fisher, USGS.

Definition:

  • Medical Geology is an earth science specialty that concerns how geologic materials and earth processes affect human health. Geologic materials such as rocks, soils, dusts, and volcanic emissions can contain naturally elevated levels of elements, minerals, other compounds, or microbes that harm or benefit human health. They can also contain human-related chemical, mineral, or pathogen contaminants. Medical geologists work with earth, biological, physical, and health scientists to help improve public health.

Etymology:

  • Medical is derived from the Latin word medērī, which means to heal. Geology originates from Greek; means Earth + -logia means study of.

Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:

  • Back in ancient times, scientists observed that some minerals harmed human health and others were beneficial. They related some diseases to environmental factors.
  • As many more earth-health connections and their complexity became apparent, so did the need for earth scientists to connect with medical and public health researchers. Earth scientists working with health researchers have made key contributions to identify geographic patterns of disease, find sources of disease-causing agents in the environment, and determine how people are exposed.

USGS Use:

  • USGS has been at the forefront of human health related research in partnership with medical scientists and in providing interdisciplinary science to decision makers. The global “one health” movement recognizes that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are inextricably linked. A healthy environment is critical for protecting people, their food supplies, and economies.
  • USGS defines Environmental Health Science as the study of relations among the quality of the physical environment, the health of the living environment, and human health. USGS studies contaminants and pathogens in all environmental compartments including air, dusts, soils, disaster materials, drinking water, beach sands and recreational waters, and animal to human diseases.
  • USGS research on the human health aspects of energy production and use has linked low grade coal deposits to kidney disease and has studied how emissions from coal combustion may contribute to cancer, mercury and arsenic poisoning, and to mercury in Pacific tuna and other fish. Current studies include the environmental and health implications of organic compounds from energy resources and water quality related to hydraulic fracturing.
  • USGS minerals and health research focuses on how geologic occurrences, characteristics, use, exposure routes, and other factors affect mineral and element toxicity (toxicological geochemistry); studies links between soil chemistry, mineralogy, microbiology, and health; and examines correlations between the geographic distribution of diseases and national geological, geochemical, and mineral resource data (geological epidemiology).
  • USGS researches water and contaminants of emerging concern. Goals include discovering interactions and combined environmental effects of contaminants of emerging concern, understanding and predicting the movement and alteration of disease-causing agents over time, understanding exposure pathways, and finding ways to minimize exposure.

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