spectrum of earth materials present in the environment constitute critical variables that influence human health—particularly where regional and local “hotspots” of earth material deficiency or toxicity occur—the bioavailabilities of earth materials must be quantified by collaborative, integrated geological and biomedical research. To understand the physiological responses of the human body to the ingestion and assimilation of earth materials, this chapter begins by briefly describing the dynamic geological processes responsible for the areal disposition of earth materials in the near-surface environment, with particular attention to soil characteristics. This is followed by a brief description of those aspects of human physiology that are—through their responses to bioaccessible nutrients and hazardous materials—directly responsive to the biogeochemical environment.


The near-surface portions of the planet and their complex couplings with—and feedbacks from—the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere make up the interactive earth systems so crucial for life. In turn, these dynamic systems are a reflection of the origin and geological evolution of the earth in the context of solar system formation. The following brief review of earth’s deep-seated and surficial processes provides the physical context for the public health component of human interactions with the earth.

Planetary Architecture and Crustal Dynamics

The solid earth consists of a series of nested shells. The outermost thin skin, or crust, overlies a magnesium silicate-rich mantle, the largest mass of the planet. Beneath the mantle is the earth’s iron-nickel core. The terrestrial surface is unique among the planets of our solar system, possessing an atmosphere, global oceans, and both continents and ocean basins. Incoming sunlight powers oceanic-atmospheric circulation. Solar energy absorbance and transfer mechanisms are responsible for the terrestrial climate and its variations, as well as for cyclonic storms and coastal flooding. In the solid portions of the planet, the escape of buried heat through mantle flow has produced the earth’s crust, as well as energy and mineral deposits and all terrestrial substances necessary for life in the biosphere.

Although imperceptible to humans without geophysical monitoring, continuous differential vertical and horizontal motions characterize the earth’s crust. This remarkable mobility explains the growth and persistence of long-lived, high-standing continents and the relative youth of low-lying ocean basins, although the former are being planed down by

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