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Geochemical legacies and the future health of cities: A tale of two neurotoxins in urban soils

October 1, 2015

The past and future of cities are inextricably linked, a linkage that can be seen clearly in the long-term impacts of urban geochemical legacies. As loci of population as well as the means of employment and industry to support these populations, cities have a long history of co-locating contaminating practices and people, sometimes with negative implications for human health. Working at the intersection between environmental processes, communities, and human health is critical to grapple with environmental legacies and to support healthy, sustainable, and growing urban populations. An emerging area of environmental health research is to understand the impacts of chronic exposures and exposure mixtures—these impacts are poorly studied, yet may pose a significant threat to population health.

Acute exposure to lead (Pb), a powerful neurotoxin to which children are particularly susceptible, has largely been eliminated in the U.S. and other countries through policy-based restrictions on leaded gasoline and lead-based paints. But the legacy of these sources remains in the form of surface soil Pb contamination, a common problem in cities and one that has only recently emerged as a widespread chronic exposure mechanism in cities. Some urban soils are also contaminated with another neurotoxin, mercury (Hg). The greatest human exposure to Hg is through fish consumption, so eating fish caught in urban areas presents risks for toxic Hg exposure. The potential double impact of chronic exposure to these two neurotoxins is pronounced in cities. Overall, there is a paradigmatic shift from reaction to and remediation of acute exposures towards a more nuanced understanding of the dynamic cycling of persistent environmental contaminants with resultant widespread and chronic exposure of inner-city dwellers, leading to chronic toxic illness and disability at substantial human and social cost.

Publication Year 2015
Title Geochemical legacies and the future health of cities: A tale of two neurotoxins in urban soils
DOI 10.12952/journal.elementa.000059
Authors Gabriel M. Fillipelli, Martin R. Risch, Mark A. S. Laidlaw, Deborah E. Nichols, Julie Crewe
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Elementa: Science of the anthropocene
Index ID 70158982
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Indiana Water Science Center