Introducing Medical Geology to Undergraduates as a Critical Thinking and Risk Assessment Tool

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Medical geology is a fast growing sub-discipline within the geological sciences; in fact it now has its own division within the Geological Society of America. With more universities pushing for integrated science classes and cross-discipline projects, it is necessary for geology educators to help students think critically and creatively about the incorporation of other fields of study into geology. We have designed a straightforward project suitable for undergraduates that emphasizes the role of geology in human health. Using the publicly available Vital Statistics of the United States, students calculate standard mortality ratios (SMRs) from respiratory and intrathoracic cancers and breast cancer as a function of county of death in Montana and California over the period of 1978-1993. The SMRs show variances in death rates from these cancers when compared to the state rates. The students can superimpose these data on geological maps, then raise questions and form theories about how geology may or may not impact the population's Health. Not only does this project foster critical thinking skills about science integration, it serves as a unique tool for teaching risk perception vs. reality.

INTRODUCTION

Geology is recognizing its importance in public health. Recently, conferences nave devoted sessions and several entire workshops have focused on the significance of geology in human health. In December 2006, the Mineralogical Society of America and the Geochemical Society co-sponsored a short-course entitled, Medical Mineralogy and Geochemistry. Presentations in this workshop included geocherrucal toxicology (Plumlee et al., 2006), soils and the transmission of prion disease such as "mad cow" (Schramm et al., 2006), geospatial incidences of a unique form of Alzheimer's disease (Perl and Moalem, 2006) and silicate biomaterials for implants (Cerruti and Sahai, 2006). The Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana hosted "Directions and Needs in Asbestos Research: New Insights" in July 2005. At the 2005 VM Goldschmidt conference held in Moscow, Idaho, a session was devoted to earth materials in human health. Mineralogists, chemists, geologists and members of the medical field presented research on asbestos (Miller, 2005, Meeker et al., 2005) and amphiboles (Sanchez and Gunter, 2005) in Libby, Montana, soils (Goldhaber et al., 2005), and spectroscopy (Swazye et al., 2005) of serpenrinites in California, lead bioaccesibility (Walraven et al., 2005), and arsenic in sediments (Lowers et al., 2005). In 2004, the NSF-funded Cutting Edge program and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers hosted a "Geology and Human Health" workshop to explore the incorporation of human health issues and materials into the undergraduate geoscience curriculum. Research presented at this workshop included possible environmental causes for breast cancer in Marin County, California (Barlow et al., 2004), pathogen transport controls in groundwater (Woessner, 2004), and projects in contaminant hydrogeology (Bahr, 2004J, to name a few.

The emerging field of medical geology emphasizes the geological, mineralogical, and geochemical properties of natural and human-made materials that affect human health. In a time where colleges and universities are encouraging inter-disciplinary studies, an undergraduate research project in medical geology seems appropriate. We need to teach our students to critically minx about the information given to them and how to assess the risk posed to them. One way to do this is through a medical geology risk assessment project designed for undergraduates.

If you have been keeping up with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR), and California news for the past several years, you might believe that a new class of minerals has been identified: Naturally Occurring Asbestos (NOA). "NOA", in fact, is in fact a poor name choice for non-commercial asbestos. …