Geology crosses over into medicine
What is medical geology?
" "Medical Geology" is defined as the science dealing with the
relationship between natural geological factors and health in man and
animals, and understanding the influence of ordinary environmental
factors on the geographical distribution of such health problems.
Medical Geology is therefore a broad and complicated subject which
requires interdisciplinary contributions from different scientific
fields if the problems are to be understood, mitigated or resolved.
Because of the importance of geological factors on health, and the
general lack of appreciation an understanding of the importance of
geology in such relationships, the IUGS Initiative on Medical Geology
has the primary aim of increasing awareness of this issue among
scientists, medical specialists, and the general public.
Medical geology started as a "new" discipline in 1998 with establishing a
Working Group on Medical Geology within COGEOENVIRONMENT, an
international commission on environmental geology under the
International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).
Although geologic factors play key roles in a range of environmental
health issues that impact the health and welfare of billions of people
worldwide, there is a general lack of understanding of the importance of
geological factors amongst the public, the biomedical and public health
community, and even within the geoscience community. To help set the
record straight, in 1996 the IUGS Commission on Geological Sciences for
Environmental Planning (COGEOENVIRONMENT) established an International
Working Group on Medical Geology led by Olle Selinus of the Geological
Survey of Sweden (SGU). The primary aim of the Medical Geology Working
Group was to increase the awareness of this issue among geoscientists,
medical specialists, and the general public.
Since the establishment of the COGEOENVIRONMENT Working Group on Medical
Geology there has been rapid development. In October 1997 the Working
group met in Vale, Colorado, USA, during the Fourth International
Symposium on Environmental Geochemistry. At this meeting the term
”Medical Geology” was adopted by the participants. The next meeting was a
workshop in Uppsala, Sweden in 1998, where discussions focused on the
feasibility of preparing a new text book on medical geology. In
September 2000, about 50 people participated in a meeting and workshop,
again in Uppsala, and a two-day seminar was held on "The Geochemical
Environment and Human Health.". A proceedings volume was subsequently
published by Catherine Skinner (Yale University, USA) and Tony Berger
(Canada). The workshop discussed the future work of the group, news
letters, an internet home page, other informational material, and
publishing of an interdisciplinary book on Medical Geology for a wide
In 2000 a new International Geological Correlation Programme (IGCP)
project, ”IGCP 454, Medical Geology,” was established. IGCP projects are
jointly sponsored by the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific
and Cultural Organization) and the IUGS. The IGCP 454 project was
chaired by Olle Selinus with co-chairs Peter Bobrowsky (Canada) and Ed
Derbyshire (UK). The primary aim of the IGCP project was to bring
together scientists in developing countries working on medical geology
issues with their colleagues in other parts of the world. The project
focused on capacity building, providing training as well as mutual
exchange of information and experience.
Also in 2000, Bob Finkelman, a geoscientist with the U. S. Geological
Survey (USGS) and Jose Centeno, a chemical toxicologist with the U.
S.Armed Forces Institue of Pathology (AFIP) joined the COGEOENVIRONMENT
Working Group and the IGCP 454 project. Jose and Bob had been working
independently on medical geology issues that parallelled and
complemented the objectives of the IUGS supported activities. Their work
on arsenic and flourine poisoning from residential coal combustion in
China and Balkan Endemic Nephropathy had attracted much positive
attention (Geotimes, Scientific American). Moreover, Bob and Jose had
developed a popular short course on the health impacts of trace elements
and metal ions that could easily be modified to suit the objectives of
the IUGS Medical Geology Working Group.
Bob Finkelman and Jose Centeno presented a one-day short course at the
2001 COGEOENVIRONMENT meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, followed by a one-day
session at the nearby University of Zambia. The excitement generated at
both venues was a convincing demonstration that the medical geology
short course would be a powerful tool with with to advance the
objectives of the IUGS Working Group. A proposal was then developed to
bring this short course to developing countries having critical medical
geology problems. The proposal for funding was submitted to the
International Couuncil for Scienc (ICSU), which awarded a $50,000 grant
to fund a small number of medical geology short courses for 2002-2003.
This was the first ICSU grant for an IUGS activitity.
Medical Geology Short Courses – Spreading the Message
With the support of the IUGS, COGEOENVIRONMENT, the USGS, AFIP, SGU, and
the host countries, the ICSU money was used to fund many more short
courses than had been proposed. These courses have been attended by more
than one thousand students and professionals with backgrounds in
geoscience, biomedical/public health science, enviromental science,
geography, engineering, chemistry, etc. etc. The leaders of the short
course are Jose Centeno, Bob Finkelman and Olle Selinus. In addition,
local scientists are invited to describe medical geology work going on
in their regions.
The aim of the short courses is to share the most recent information on
the relationship between toxic metal ions, trace elements, minerals,
etc. and their impact on the environmental and public health issues. The
scientific topics of the course include environmental toxicology,
environmental pathology, geochemistry, geoenvironmental epidemiology,
extent, patterns and consequences of exposures to toxic metal ions, and
The courses, generally 2 to 3 days in length, are intended for anyone
interested in the effects of natural materials on animal and human
health. An important aim of the courses is to provide the opportunity
for forming contacts and networks between professionals working in
different countries and on different aspects of environmental health
issues. We have produced a 300 page syllabus and a CD containg all of
the PowerPoint images used in the short course as well as supplementary
material such as reprints of relevant articles for participants to bring
back home. It is anticipated that this material will be used by some of
the participants to conduct their own courses in medical geology.
The following short courses have been carried out partially or fully
funded by the IUGS and the ICSU grant: • 2001: Zambia, and South Africa
• 2002: Chile, Russia, Japan, and China
• 2003: Lithuania, Edinburgh, Uruguay, Brazil, Australia, and Malaysia
• 2004: South Africa, Mozambique, Hungary, Canada, Australia, and India
In 2005, short courses are scheduled for Romania, Brazil, Uruguay,
Argentina, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Requests for
short courses have been received from Jamaica, Kenya, Norway, Taiwan,
Portugal, Nigeria, Ghana, Russia, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Medical Geology – A Global Affair
One of the first activities of the IUGS Medical Geology Working Group
was to establish and maintain communications with an audience dispersed
throughout the world, many in developing countries with limited
communication capabilities. The Working Group also established a Medical
Geology web site. This website is regularly updated, it forms a key
source of information on the subject, and is recommended for all
information and news. The Working Group also produces a newsletter twice
a year, edited by Dave Elliott of Canada. The newsletter is distributed
to all members of the working group and all issues can be accessed on
the web site.
Nearly 1,000 people have signed up as corresponding members of the Medical Geology Working Group from 70 countries.
Information and news on the working group has been published in many
journals. One highlight has been a note in the February 2002 issue of
Scientific American on the health impacts of residential coal burning in
China. Several papers and notes have also been published in different
books and journals, drawing attention to and marketing the IGCP project.
Some examples of these publications are:
• "Environmental Medicine," a book published in 2000 at the Karolinska
Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. One chapter is on Medical Geology. This
book is now used for courses for medical students at the Karolinska
• "Geoenvironmental Mapping" (edited by P. Bobrowsky) was published in 2001. One chapter is on Medical Geology.
• Earthwise, the magazine of the British Geological Survey, has
published a thematic issue on Geology and Health (Earthwise issue 17).
• "Epidemioecology News," a new newsletter on medical geology is published by USGS.
• "Geology and Health", a book edited by H. Catherine W. Skinner and
Antony R. Berger and published by Oxford University Press, covered all
the presentations given at the meeting in Uppsala in 2000.
Interdisciplinary Book on Medical Geology
A book on Medical Geology will be published in December 2004 by Elsevier
(Academic Press). The chief editor is O. Selinus, and there are 6
associate editors: Ulf Lindh, Ron Fuge, Brian Alloway, Pauline Smedley,
Jose Centeno and Bob Finkelman. There are almost 60 distinguished
authors from all around the world. About 50% are geoscientists and about
50% are medics, veterinarians and other scientists. The volume is
almost 1000 pages in full colour. The audience of the book will be
junior and senior undergraduates and educated decision-makers. The main
objective is to emphasise the importance of geology in health and
disease in humans and animals. Information can be found on the Medical
Symposia and Congresses
The working group and IGCP project has been involved in promoting
medical geology at meetings around the world by organizing and/or
sponsoring special sessions or symposia on medical geology. The working
group has also provided financial support for dozens of students and
professionals from developing countries to participate in these and
other events.In addition, Working Group members have been invited to
talk about medical geology at numerous universities, colleges, research
hospitals, science clubs, etc., in more than 30 countries.
Medical Geology – Global Impacts
Medical geology will also be one of the featured topics in the
International Year of Planet Earth. The plan is that the International
Year will be proclaimed through the United Nations, and it has already
been adopted by the UNESCO Division of Earth Sciences as one of its core
activities. There will also be a significant involvement in the 4
International Medical Geology Association (IMGA)
Our organisation has now reached the stage of development in which a
formal structure is necessary for it to function efficiently. As a
result of the work to date, an International Medical Geology Association
was launched in Florence, Italy, at 32nd International Geological
Congress. The structure should enable us to better respond to the
opportunities, to rapidly pass information to those interested in
medical geology issues, and to make critical decisions that will benefit
the discipline. To begin this process, we have selected the name
"International Medical Geology Association" (IMGA) for our organization.
The Directors of the association are: Olle Selinus (Geochemist, Sweden)
Bob Finkelman (Geologist, USA), and Jose Centeno (Pathologist, USA).
David Elliott (Canada) will continue his work as editor of the
Newsletter. We have appointed six Councillors to represent the broad
geographic distribution of medical geology and the wide range of
disciplines that are embraced by this topic. The Councillors are:
Bernardino Ribeiro de Figueiredo (Geologist, Brazil), Fiona Fordyce
(Geochemist, UK), Zheng Baoshan (Geochemist, China), Calin Tatu (Medical
researcher, Romania), Nomathemba Ndiweni (Veterinary Biochemistry,
Zimbabwe), and Philip Weinstein (Epidemiologist, Australia).
Olle Selinus, Geological Survey of Sweden, Robert B. Finkelman, U. S.
Geological Survey, and Jose A. Centeno, U. S. Armed Forces Institute of
Pathology, Washington, DC