issue addressed here is the generally inadequate appreciation of the potential benefits of this interface and the consequent diminished priority that it is accorded.
Historically, it was known that some geographic locations were associated with specific diseases in humans and animals. Marco Polo recognized hoof diseases in animals that had consumed certain plants (later determined to be selenium-accumulating plants) and observed physical abnormalities (goiters) that he attributed to the local water supply. Recognition of the role of iodine to alleviate goiter emphasizes the importance of research at the interface of earth science and public health, and in fact iodine deficiency is one of the single most preventable causes of mental retardation (Delange et al., 2001). Similarly, the addition of fluoride to drinking water and toothpaste, based on recognition of the beneficial effects of naturally fluoridated water, has been hailed as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the twentieth century (CDC, 1999). For communities of more than 20,000 people, the cost savings from prevention of dental cavities as a result of water fluoridation has been estimated as 38 times the cost of fluoride addition (Griffin et al., 2001).
Such instances are far outweighed by examples where prior knowledge of earth science and improved understanding of the characteristics of earth materials could have informed the decision-making process and prevented disease. Volcanic aerosols, gases and ash, airborne and waterborne fibrous minerals, and toxic metals in soils and plants are all examples presented later in this report where earth materials have adversely affected human health (see Box 1.1).
In a series of reports more than 20 years ago, National Research Council (NRC) committees described the contemporary understanding of interactions between earth’s geochemical environment and public health (NRC, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981). This report presents a broad update describing our understanding of the interactions between earth materials and public health, provides an introduction to successful past cooperative scientific activities at the interface of the earth and health sciences, and suggests future avenues for crossover and integration of research for the common good of humankind.
Recognizing the current disconnect between research carried out by the earth science and public health communities, the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and National Aero-