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Natural Science and Public Health: Prescription for a Better Environment

  [ 288 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • March 31, 2003

Health problems caused by environmental contamination and emerging infectious diseases are a growing concern worldwide. With a global population that is rapidly expanding, increasingly mobile, and moving into previously undeveloped areas, we can expect this trend to continue. To effectively deal with these threats to human health we must recognize them early. Often the landscape or the wildlife gives us our first "warnings."

Because understanding environmental health is a prerequisite to protecting human health, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is hosting Natural Science and Public Health: Prescription for a Better Environment. This conference will bring together public health experts and earth scientists to discuss the emerging discipline of Medical Geology. The conference will feature welcoming remarks by Dr. Charles (Chip) Groat, Director, USGS; and a keynote address by Representative Ralph Regula, Chairman, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, House Appropriations Committee. Agenda of the April 1-3 conference is available on:

Some of the emerging topics are:

Emerging Sensor Technologies to Keep Water Supplies Safe: To address growing concern about the security of the nation's drinking water supplies, scientists and engineers from the USGS, USEPA, Rutgers University, and the New Jersey Department of Natural Resources are developing a prototype real-time early-warning network to monitor the quality of drinking water from accidental or intentional contamination. By upgrading current water quality monitoring stations with new sensor technologies as they become available, by adding new stations at key locations, and by linking the network to satellites, the team intends to make data on a wide range of contaminants available to water-supply managers.

Dust from Africa: Each year, millions of tons of air-borne dust cross the Atlantic from Africa, and arrive in parts of the western hemisphere, including the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean. At its source in northern Africa, is a rogues' gallery -- bacteria, viruses, insects, and heavy metals -- that can be harmful to human health. During the last 30-plus years, North Africa has had drier-than-usual weather, which has dramatically increased the quantities of dust making it across the ocean. Scientists are trying to determine whether increases in asthma are caused by a drought half a world away.

Before You Hit the Beach, Check the (Bacteria) Forecast: Just a few weeks ago, USGS announced the development of a new tool for predicting water safety at several test beaches in Ohio that might be applied to beaches across the nation. Using models to forecast E. coli, an indicator of contamination that can make swimmers ill, scientists have reduced the time needed to evaluate the test beaches from 18 hours to within 2 hours of data collection, giving beachgoers current information, not yesterday's information. During the study, scientists found that sand in the swash zone, the part of the beach that is washed by waves or tides where young children are likely to play, contained significantly higher levels of E. coli than sediments in deeper water.

Dust from the Towers: In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, USGS received a request from EPA and U.S. Public Health Service to help characterize and map the dusts deposited by the World Trade Center collapse. Once commercial aviation resumed, USGS scientists boarded the first available flights to New York. Within a week of the attacks, they had acquired state-of-the-art satellite imagery over lower Manhattan, and were on the ground in New York sampling the dusts. By Sept. 27, they had characterized many of the dust samples, and released results of their work to emergency responders.

Cancer and Drinking Water: Clusters of elevated breast-cancer incidence have been reported in several areas in Long Island, NY. USGS is working with Suffolk County to measure pesticide levels in groundwater and to determine whether the locations of these clusters correspond to areas having high contaminant levels for drinking water. USGS is working on a similar study in northern New England to determine if a high incidence of bladder cancer is linked to elevated arsenic in private well water. And near Fallon, NV, scientists have found that elevated levels of radioactive elements are naturally occurring, not the result of underground nuclear testing in the 1960s. Health officials suspect that a childhood-leukemia cluster could be related to those elevated concentrations.

Arsenic, Coal, and… Chili Peppers?: Throughout the world, nearly one billion people burn coal for heating and cooking in unvented ovens. As a consequence, millions of these people suffer serious health problems. In China's Guizhou Province alone, health officials have identified more than 3000 cases of arsenic poisoning, attributed primarily to the practice of drying chili peppers used in Sichuan cooking, over stoves burning coals with extreme concentrations of arsenic. Working with officials in China and scientists in the U.S., USGS has adapted an arsenic-in-water field-test kit to analyze arsenic in coal. Fluorine poisoning also affects millions of people in China. USGS scientists have helped Chinese health officials to trace this health crisis to drying corn over fluorine-enriched coal. Recognizing the etiology of these diseases has helped public health officials to determine how to mitigate this hazard.

Sentinels of Emerging Disease: Because wild birds often are the first indicator that West Nile Virus is present in an area, state and local health departments depend upon the testing of dead birds for West Nile Virus surveillance. With expertise in wildlife health and mapping, USGS has been at the forefront of West Nile virus research since the disease emerged in 1999 and continues to support public health officials and wildlife agencies that are collecting and testing wild birds to detect West Nile Virus activity. With the Centers for Disease Control, USGS is investigating the role of migratory birds in disseminating the virus to determine the pathways by which the virus is maintained and spread.

Recovery of an Urban Ocean: Santa Monica Bay lies off the coast of the greater Los Angeles area, an urban center of more than 15 million people. Through the years, sewage outfalls have carried industrial and domestic wastes into the bay, making it highly contaminated. In collaboration with local and other federal agencies, USGS conducted a 5-year study of sediments at the bottom of the bay. Although most locations tested remain highly contaminated, toxicity levels are decreasing with time and improved waste-treatment procedures.

About the USGS:

The USGS serves the nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life. To receive USGS news releases go to

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