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Geology and health. (Research Initiatives).

If you don't consider geologists to be environmental health experts, think again. Earth scientists collect data on some of the planet's naturally occurring health hazards--including pathogens, radon, arsenic, coal, zinc, volcanic releases, dust, cadmium, and asbestos--and work with public health and biomedical scientists to mitigate the effects of these potent pollutants. These contributions to environmental health research were the topic of an April 2003 meeting, "Natural Science and Public Health: Prescription for a Better Environment."

In rural villages across the world, geologists are linking environmental contaminants to local diseases. William Orem, a USGS geochemist from Reston, Virginia, has been studying Balkan endemic nephropathy (BEN), which occurs in certain areas in the Balkans. BEN patients have a high incidence of renal and pelvic cancer. Orem and his colleagues have linked the disease to well water contaminated with organic compounds leached from low-rank (softer) coal deposits known as Pliocene lignites. Their investigation expanded in 2002 to Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Louisiana, where they are finding communities underlain by low-rank coal deposits that have contaminated drinking water and high rates of renal and pelvic cancer.

In their pursuit of pathogens, USGS scientists are investigating when and where West Nile virus will strike next, reported Stephen Guptill, a USGS geographer from Reston. The virus is spread by mosquitoes to humans, birds, and other animals; uninfected mosquitoes pick it up when they feed on infected birds. Communities where bird infections occurred early in the mosquito season were 2-20 times more likely than other communities to have human cases of the disease, Guptill and colleagues wrote in the April 2003 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases. They tested and released thousands of birds of more than 150 species in 2001 and 2002. They think the primary bird carriers may be one of the species that the virus doesn't sicken.

In the wake of West Nile virus's cross-country march is a trail of insecticides used to kill the mosquito vectors. Stephen Terracciano, a USGS hydrologist from Coram, New York, reported on a Long Island pilot program begun in 2000 to monitor the fate of insecticides. He and his colleagues are in the process of measuring concentrations of a broad screen of pesticides in the water with a lipid-containing, semipermeable membrane kit that mimics how pesticides are absorbed by fish.

Fish have also caught the attention of scientists with the Biomonitoring of Environmental Status and Trends (BEST) Program, a USGS project to characterize the effects of environmental contaminants on the health of biota and their habitats. Since 1995, researchers have assessed fish health in large rivers to see whether they are affected by contaminants. Thus far the program has sampled the Mississippi, Rio Grande, Columbia, and Yukon basins, reported Tim Bartish, a USGS biologist in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Results have documented a gonadal anomaly in which egg cells are found in the testes of male smallmouth and largemouth bass. At one site on the Mississippi River downstream of Minneapolis--St. Paul, 70% of bass collected were affected, compared to a rate of less than 10% found elsewhere. The specific causes and biological significance of this condition are not known.

For more on the USGS environmental health program, visit http://health.usgs.gov/.
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Author:Adler, Tina
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:532
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