Soils and geomedicine
Published online: 7 April 2009
? Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
the influence of natural factors on the geographical
distribution of problems in human and veterinary
medicine. Discussions on potential harmful impacts
on human and animal health related to soil chemistry
are frequently focused on soil pollution. However,
problems related to natural excess or deficiency of
chemical substances may be even more important in a
global perspective. Particularly problems related to
trace element deficiencies in soils have been fre-
quently reported in agricultural crops as well as in
livestock. Deficiencies in plants are often observed
for boron, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and
zinc. In animals deficiency problems related to
cobalt, copper, iodine, manganese, and selenium are
well known. Toxicity problems in animals exposed to
excess intake have also been reported, e.g., for
copper, fluorine, and selenium. Humans are similar to
mammals in their relations to trace elements and thus
likely to develop corresponding problems as observed
in domestic animals if their supply of food is local
and dependent on soils providing trace element
imbalances in food crops. In large parts of Africa,
Asia, and Latin America, people depend on locally
grown food, and geomedical problems are common
in these parts of the world. Well-known examples are
Geomedicine is the science dealing with
Keshan disease in China associated with selenium
deficiency, large-scale arsenic poisoning in Bangla-
desh and adjacent parts of India, and iodine
deficiency disorders in many countries. Not all
essential elements are derived only from the soil
minerals. Some trace elements such as boron, iodine,
and selenium are supplied in significant amounts to
soils by atmospheric transport from the marine
environment, and deficiency problems associated with
these elements are therefore generally less common in
coastal areas than farther inland. For example, iodine
deficiency disorders in humans are most common in
areas situated far from the ocean. There is still a great
need for further research on geomedical problems.
Soil ? Trace elements ? Deficiency ?
Geomedicine ? Human health ?
In the basic textbook by La ˚g (1990) geomedicine is
defined as the ‘‘influence of ordinary natural processes
on the health of humans and animals.’’ In addition to
influence from geological processes, this definition
also encompasses the influence on health of factors
such as incoming radiation from the sun and the
transport of chemical substances. In this paper such
E. Steinnes (&)
Department of Chemistry, Norwegian University of
Science and Technology, Trondheim 7491, Norway
Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535
factors will be discussed only to the extent that they
may affect health through interfering with the elemen-
tal composition of the soils, which is the focus of this
In spite of the fact that numerous reports have
occurred over the centuries linking some human
diseases to particular geographical areas (La ˚g 1990),
it is surprising to note the limited attention that has
been paid to the relation between soils and human
health by soil scientists as well as medical profes-
sionals (Deckers and Steinnes 2004). In fact the
veterinary profession has been much more aware of
this kind of relationship. An extensive literature
exists on the problems of deficiency and excess of
trace elements in animal nutrition (Lewis and
Anderson 1983; Mills 1983; Frøslie 1990), and
balancing of micronutrient intake has long been an
essential concern in the feeding of agricultural
The general interest in connections between the
natural environment and human health has been
stimulated recently through the book ‘‘Essentials of
Medical Geology’’ (Selinus et al. 2005), and this
book can be recommended for a more extensive
treatise of some of the problems discussed in this
paper. Other reviews dealing with soils and geomed-
icine are papers by Oliver (1997; 2004) and Deckers
and Steinnes (2004).
A great majority of the literature on geomedicine
deals with trace elements, i.e., elements present in
living organisms at very low concentrations, but still
affecting human health because they may be supplied
to the organism in deficient or excessive amounts
relative to a normal level. This paper, therefore,
concentrates on the impact of trace elements on
human and animal health under natural conditions.
Trace elements in the soil/plant system
Trace elements in soil are generally derived from the
mineral material present in the soil, and become plant
available by weathering of soil minerals. Some
metals are more mobile in the soil than others and
may be depleted in the root zone by leaching to
deeper layers. On the other hand, root uptake in
plants and return to the soil surface by decaying plant
material (‘‘plant pumping’’) may serve to concentrate
some elements in the surface soil relative to deeper
layers (Goldschmidt 1937; Steinnes and Nja ˚stad
1995). This is particularly evident for plant nutrients
such as potassium, calcium, manganese, and zinc, but
may also explain surface enrichment of other ele-
ments readily absorbed by some plants such as
rubidium, cesium, barium, and cadmium.
In some cases supply from the marine environment
in the form of sea salt aerosols or volatile organic
compounds, or from volcanic activity, may signifi-
cantly affect the concentrations of elements in the
surface soil, such as the atmospheric supply of iodine
and selenium to coastal areas from processes in the
ocean (La ˚g and Steinnes 1974; 1976) and the contam-
ination of agricultural land in Iceland by fluorine from
eruptions of the Hekla volcano (La ˚g 1990).
Micronutrient deficiency in plants may limit
agricultural production and either directly or indi-
Andersen 2007). There are eight recognized essential
plant micronutrients: boron, chlorine, manganese,
iron, nickel, copper, zinc, and molybdenum (Gupta
and Gupta 2005). With the exception of nickel, and
possibly boron, these elements are also essential to
humans and higher animals. The plant uptake of these
elements as well as other elements discussed in this
chapter, such as cobalt, nickel, arsenic, selenium,
cadmium, and iodine, depends first of all on their
chemical form in the soil, which may be influenced
by a number of factors. The soil pH is particularly
important in this respect. Elements such as molyb-
denum and selenium may be strongly bound in the
intermediate pH range (5.5–7.5), but readily plant
available in more alkaline soils. On the other hand,
iron, aluminium, manganese, and toxic metals, such
as cadmium and lead, are more available the more
acid the soil. Sometimes competition between differ-
ent metals may prevent optimal uptake of a particular
nutrient, such as the decreased zinc availability
induced by the presence of relatively high concen-
trations of other metals such as copper, iron and
calcium (Kiekens 1995). Under equal conditions,
different plant species may take up the same metal
from the soil at very different rates (Alloway 2005).
Trace elements and health
Most of the 90 elements present on Earth occur in the
human body at concentrations of 100 mg kg-1or
524Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535
less. Only a few of these elements are known to have
essential functions in the body. Among the elements
present in trace concentrations in the human body,
only chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, copper,
zinc, selenium, and molybdenum, and possibly fluo-
rine, are confirmed to have some essential function.
For some other elements, clinical symptoms have
been observed with low concentrations in the diet, but
the possible essential function is not known. The
great majority of elements are not known to possess
any specific biological function. Most, if not all,
elements are toxic to the human organism if they
occur in the food in specific chemical forms and
above certain concentration levels. This means that
for essential elements there exists a certain concen-
tration range representing a safe and adequate intake.
Concentrations above or below this range may cause
health problems due to deficiency or toxicity. For
elements not possessing any biological function,
there is probably no such range, but just a concen-
tration threshold above which the element becomes
In the following, the geomedical aspects of some
key elements are discussed. The data listed for mean
concentrations in the upper continental crust and
median levels in surface soils are Wedepohl (1995)
and Bowen (1979), respectively.
Although aluminium is the most abundant metal in
the Earth’s crust (8.0%), it is present at trace levels in
most biota. Studies suggest that less than 1% of
dietary aluminium is absorbed in humans—factors
affecting absorption may include vitamin D, fluoride,
and presence of complexing agents (WHO 1996).
Aluminium is known to be neurotoxic at high
exposure levels. Some epidemiological studies found
a statistically significant association of aluminium in
drinking water with the incidence of dementia
(Martyn et al. 1989; Flaten 1990). Some more recent
studies did not confirm this association, and a recent
authoritative review (Krewski et al. 2007) states that
further studies are needed to settle the debate over the
link between aluminium in drinking water and
Aluminium from drinking water usually contrib-
utes only a very small proportion of daily human
intake. The major part of a typical 20 mg/day daily
intake comes from food (e.g., tea) and food additives
containing aluminium, such as preservatives, fillers,
coloring agents, etc. Aluminium may also leach from
cooking utensils if exposure is long enough. How-
ever, evidence surrounding the relationship between
aluminium in food and neurological disorders is at
present very minimal (Krewski et al. 2007).
The crustal mean concentration
2 mg kg-1, and the median concentration in soils is
6 mg kg-1. Arsenic is a toxic metal, especially if
present in oxidation state III. In most cases the
arsenic content in soils does not represent a health
problem as such, but under specific circumstances
naturally occurring arsenic can create very substantial
health impacts. In many areas of the world traditional
surface water sources for drinking have been replaced
by groundwater because of high contents of infec-
tious organisms. This has caused severe problems in
some regions because of the naturally high content of
arsenic in the groundwater. The most well known
case is the Bengal delta (Bangladesh and adjacent
areas of India) where millions of people are exposed
to high levels of arsenic. According to Smedley and
Kinniburgh (2002) around 35 million people in
Bangladesh and 6 million people in West Bengal
were estimated to be at risk from arsenic in drinking
water at concentrations above 50 lg l-1. The most
obvious health problems related to chronic exposure
to arsenic are skin disorders, notably pigmentation
changes and keratosis, although skin cancer has also
been identified (Smedley and Kinniburgh 2005).
Karim et al. (2007) compared the nutritional status
of children in arsenic-exposed and non-exposed areas
in Bangladesh and found that children in the exposed
area had a significantly lower body mass index, were
more underweight, and more stunted than those in the
control group. Health problems related to naturally
high arsenic in drinking water have also been
reported from Taiwan and northern Chile (Oliver
1997). Concentrations in groundwater sufficiently
high to cause health problems have also been
reported from numerous other areas, including north-
ern China, Vietnam, Hungary, north central Mexico,
Argentina, and southwest USA (Smedley and Kinni-
of arsenic is
Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535525
17 mg kg-1, and the level in soils is similar. The
presence of boron in the environment originates
mainly from marine salts, volcanic activity, and
industrial pollution. In foodstuffs boron occurs in
plant tissues, of which legumes contain the highest
levels, followed by fruits and vegetables (WHO
1996). Boron is essential for plant growth and is
probably essential for human health, but this has not
been established conclusively. Excessive boron
intake may cause symptoms of boron poisoning,
such as: gastrointestinal disturbances, erythematous
skin eruptions, and signs of central nervous system
stimulation followed by depression (WHO 1996).
Boron is an issue of concern in irrigated agriculture,
as high boron levels in irrigation water may cause
boron levels in the soil to rise to such an extent that
crop levels become toxic.
crustalmean concentrationof boronis
The crustal mean concentration of cadmium is as low
as 0.10 mg kg-1, but the median concentration in
soils is considerably higher (0.35 mg kg-1), partly
due to ‘‘plant pumping.’’ Human activities however
are the main reason for high cadmium contents in
soils. Phosphate fertilizers are the most widespread
cause of cadmium contamination, but activities such
as zinc mining, emissions from smelters, and appli-
cation of sewage sludge to soils have caused
significant local problems in some places. Cadmium
is one of the most toxic metals known to humans and
is present in relatively high concentrations in black
shales. The major health hazard of cadmium appears
to be chronic accumulation in the renal cortex, which
may cause age-related decline in the renal function at
moderate intakes (Roels et al. 1981).
The crustal mean concentration of chromium is 35 mg
kg-1, and the median value in soils is 70 mg kg-1.
Trivalent chromium is essential to man and animals,
and it plays a role in carbohydrate metabolism as a
glucose tolerance factor. The function of chromium in
the human body seems to be closely associated with
that of insulin, and most chromium-stimulated reac-
in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, and for the
is present as Cr(III), which is fairly insoluble and
chromium may be released in sizeable quantities from
the exchange complex. Chromium is necessary in the
human body as a co-factor for insulin and henceforth
plays a role in sugar metabolism. Chromium deficien-
cies may lead to arteriosclerosis. Excessive intake of
chromium is associated with renal dysfunction. It
should be noted that toxicity of chromium depends on
oxidation status—Cr(VI) is mutagenic, whereas
Cr(III) is not (WHO 1996). In epidemiological studies
through inhalation to Cr(VI) and mortality due to lung
cancer, but no problems in human health connected to
The mean crustal concentration is 12 mg kg-1, and
the median in soils is similar. Among the trace
elements essential to humans and animals, cobalt is
unique in that the requirement is not for the element
per se, but for a preformed cobalt compound, Cobal-
amin (vitamin B12) produced by microorganisms.
Higher plants and animals are not able to produce
cobalamin. Sometimes however there is an indirect
symbiotic relationship between bacteria and animals,
such as in ruminants where cobalamin produced by
rumen microorganisms is absorbed further down the
gastrointestinal tract of the animal. Cobalt deficiency
is frequently observed in sheep, and also sometimes in
cattle. The symptoms were known already at the end
of the nineteenth century, but the problem was long
thought to be iron deficiency, until Underwood and
Filmer (1935) were able to link it to cobalt. Cobalt
deficiency is widespread in New Zealand, Australia,
and Great Britain, and also occurs frequently in parts
of Scandinavia (Frøslie 1990). Endemic problems in
humans related to cobalt are not known, with the
exception of a proposed relationship between the
cobalt status in the environment and incidence of
goiter in Russia, which deserves to be further
examined (Smith 1987).
526Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535
The mean crustal concentration is 14 mg kg-1,
somewhat lower than the median of 30 mg kg-1
reported for soils. Copper deficiency is widespread all
over the world. Copper deficiency in plants is
common with high soil pH, high organic carbon
content, and excessive drainage conditions. Copper
plays an essential role in the human body as part of
metalloproteins, e.g., hemoglobin. Main sources of
copper in food are meat, mainly liver followed by
fish, nuts, and seeds. Zinc and iron are strong
antagonists to copper, and a large intake of them
can lead to copper deficiency (Oliver 1997). Copper
deficiency in humans may lead to typical disease
symptoms such as anemia, deformations of the
skeleton, neural disorders, color change of hair,
degeneration of the hearing muscle, reduced elasticity
of arteries, and loss of pigment in the skin. Copper
deficiency however is relatively rare in adults, but is
involved in several diseases in children, particularly
in situations of malnutrition. Geo-medical correla-
tions with copper in human medicine, however,
remain inconclusive so far.
In animals both copper deficiency and copper
poisoning problems related to natural pastures are
quite common, in particular in sheep (Frøslie 1990).
In both cases the condition may be influenced by the
antagonistic effect on copper exerted by molybde-
num. Thus, the copper/molybdenum ratio in the feed
is important, in particular with ruminants. Excess of
molybdenum can cause copper deficiency at other-
wise sufficient copper levels (molybdenosis), whereas
poisoning may occur at relatively moderate copper
levels if the molybdenum intake is too low.
Interestingly, copper deficiency and/or molybde-
nosis may have been the reason for a complex disease
observed in moose in a region of Sweden affected by
acidic precipitation (Frank 1998). The clinical signs
of this disease were multiple, including sudden heart
failure and osteoporosis, and the reason was thought
to be increased pH in soil and water in the moose
environment and corresponding changes in plant
availability of copper and molybdenum.
Fluorine occurs in nature as the fluoride ion. The
mean crustal concentration is 610 mg kg-1, whereas
the median in soils is only 200 mg kg-1, presumably
because fluoride is easily leached from the topsoil.
Correlation between fluorine content in the human
diet and the soil type was established for the first time
in New Zealand (Ludwig et al. 1962). Drinking water
constitutes an important source of fluoride, and
wherever concentrations are high, drinking water is
likely to constitute the main source of fluoride to
humans and livestock.
The natural fluorine content shows large geo-
graphical variations (Havell et al. 1989), which has a
great impact on human and animal health. Moderate
amounts of fluorine are beneficial to dental structure,
whereas chronic intake of high amounts may lead to
development of dental fluorosis, and in extreme cases
skeletal fluorosis. Deficiency in fluorine has long
been linked to dental caries, and fluoride addition to
drinking water to augment naturally low fluoride
concentrations has been undertaken in some countries
(Edmunds and Smedley 2005). The range of safe and
adequate fluoride, however, appears to be very
narrow. Fluoride concentrations in drinking water of
around 1 mgl-1are thought to be optimal. However,
chronic use of drinking water exceeding 1.5 mgl-1,
the WHO (2004) guideline for fluoride in drinking
water, may already be detrimental to health. More
than 200 million people worldwide are thought to be
drinking water with fluoride in excess of this value,
including about 70 million in India and 45 million in
China (Edmunds and Smedley 2005). In Sri Lanka,
where the incidence of dental fluorosis among
children is high, it is apparent that the fluoride
exposure may depend not only on the natural fluoride
content of the bedrock, but also on the climate
(Dissanayake 1991). In spite of the fact that rocks
containing fluoride-rich minerals are underlying most
of the country, areas in the west with mean annual
precipitation above 2,000 mm experience few fluo-
ride problems, whereas they are abundant in the
eastern and north central regions of the country where
the climate is dryer. This difference is apparently due
to more extensive leaching of fluoride in the areas of
1.4 mg kg-1. The median in soils worldwide is
5 mg kg-1, but the span between low and high
Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535527
iodine soils is very large. The highest values are
found in organic-rich soils near the coast. It has long
been obvious that iodine must be released from the
ocean in another form than just as sea-salt aerosols.
Whereas the chlorine/iodine ratio in ocean water is
about 3.105, it is generally 100–1,000 times lower in
precipitation samples collected in marine air (Seto
and Duce 1972) and another factor of 10 lower in
natural surface soils (La ˚g and Steinnes 1976). The
major mechanism of iodine transfer from ocean to
land must reflect preferential volatilization of seawa-
ter iodine into the atmosphere (Fuge 2005), and the
most likely source seems to be the release of volatile
methyl iodide by marine organisms (Yoshida and
Muramatsu 1995). The relative role of wet and dry
deposition of iodine on land surfaces is not clear
(Fuge 2005), and little is known with regard to the
quantities of marine iodine carried to areas remote
from the sea.
Iodine has long been known as an essential
element for humans and mammals, where it is a
component of the thyroid hormone thyroxene. Insuf-
ficient supply of iodine may lead to a series of iodine
deficiency disorders (IDD), the most common of
which is endemic goiter. Iodine deficiency during
pre-natal development and the first year of life can
result in endemic cretinism, a disease that causes
stunted growth and general development along with
brain damage. This brain damage may occur when
there is no obvious physical effect, and probably
represents the most widespread current geomedical
problem on Earth with as many as 1.6 billion people
at risk (Dissanayake 2005). The areas of the world
currently most affected by IDD are largely located in
developing countries (Fuge 2005), with large, con-
tinuous territories in continental parts of Africa, Asia,
and Latin America. However, even in some affluent
countries of Western Europe, it has been suggested
that as many as 50–100 million people may be at risk
Iron is the second most abundant metal in the Earth’s
crust (average concentration 3.1%), and the median
in soils is similar. Iron is an important element in man
and higher animals, as a key component of hemo-
globin, myoglobin, and a number of enzymes.
Important sources of total iron in the human diet
are meat, fish, eggs, green vegetables, and whole-
meal flour and bread, whereas milk and milk
products, white flour and bread, polished rice,
potatoes, and most fresh fruits are poor in iron. The
mobility of iron in soils depends on its oxidation
state, Fe(II) being the more mobile form. In the
surface soil however iron is normally present as
Fe(III), the chemical speciation of which depends on
pH and redox conditions. At high pH the soil may be
deficient in plant-available iron.
Iron deficiency is a common problem in human
populations. In several studies of infants in the USA,
the incidence of iron deficiency anemia is reported to
vary from less than 5% to as high as 64%. Although
some of the variation may be explained by differ-
ences in the criteria of anemia employed, differences
in socioeconomic status are undoubtedly an important
factor (Morris 1987). In the adult population iron
deficiency is much more common in women during
their fertile years than in men, because of their iron
losses in menstruation, pregnancy, parturition, and
lactation. In developing countries, where the popula-
tion relies heavily on vegetable foods and where
infections and extensive sweating are common, the
incidence of iron deficiency anemia is generally
higher than in the more industrialized and temperate
climate areas of the world (Morris 1987). No
geographical differences in the incidence of iron
deficiency related to soil quality seem to have been
reported in the literature.
The mean crustal concentration is 17 mg kg-1, and
the median in soils is 35 mg kg-1. This difference is
due to the widespread contamination from air pollu-
tion; according to Patterson (1965) the pre-industrial
value may have been as low as 12 mg kg-1. Lead is
an element of high toxicity, but transfer of lead from
the soil to the green parts is limited for most plants.
According to published literature on adverse health
effects of lead, the risk appears to be limited to
exposure from lead pollution.
The mean crustal concentration is 530 mg kg-1. The
median in soil is somewhat higher (1,000 mg kg-1),
presumably because of ‘‘plant pumping.’’ Manganese
528Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535
is an essential element for humans and higher
animals, and is an element of low toxicity. It occurs
in some metalloenzymes and is involved in many
biochemical processes in the organism. Manganese
deficiency is known in several animal species,
including sheep, goats, and cattle. It may occur either
as a primary condition in certain geographical regions
where the soil is poor in manganese or in a secondary
form associated with excess calcium and phosphorus,
but does not appear to be of any practical importance
in livestock farming (Frøslie 1990).
Some epidemiological studies have linked manga-
nese deficiency to human health problems. Marjanen
and Soini (1972) found a strong negative linear
relationship between soil manganese content and
cancer incidence (all types of cancer included) in a
study comparing 179 parishes in Finland. Several
studies in South Africa and Iran seem to link the
incidence of esophageal cancer with manganese
deficiency (Deckers and Steinnes 2004). Another
health problem located to South Africa, the Mseleni
joint disease, has also been associated with manga-
nese deficiency (Fincham et al. 1981).
The mean crustal concentration is 0.056 mg kg-1,
and the median in soils is similar. Mercury has no
known essential function, and all chemical forms are
toxic, most severely in the case of methyl mercury.
Several cases of intoxication of groups of people have
been described, the most severe in Minamata, Japan,
where a great number of people died after eating
locally caught fish. The reason for the high methyl
mercury content in the fish was the release of
mercury from a local chlor-alkali plant and subse-
quent methylation in the sediment of the Minamata
Bay. All reported cases of group intoxication due to
mercury appear to be associated directly or indirectly
with human activities. Epidemic events unquestion-
ably due to naturally high mercury levels have so far
not been reported, but some indigenous populations
are exposed to high levels of methylmercury due to
high consumption of predatory freshwater fish or
marine animals. This problem has probably increased
during recent times because of a substantially increa-
sed atmospheric load of mercury in the Northern
hemisphere (Bindler 2003). In some countries the
construction of hydroelectric reservoirs, involving
flooding of previous land areas, has resulted in
methylation of mercury concentrated in the previous
topsoil and subsequent accumulation in the aquatic
food web. Indigeonus people living mainly from
freshwater fish have thus been exposed to high levels
of methylmercury (Dumont and Kosatsky 1990).
The mean crustal concentration is 1.4 mg kg-1, and
the median in soil is similar. Molybdenum is an
essential element, which is a constituent of several
enzymes in human and animal organisms. However,
it has a relatively small window of optimal concen-
tration and is involved in several toxicity problems in
sheep and cattle (Frøslie 1990). Molybdenum per se
appears not to be particularly toxic (Mills and Davis
1987), but when present in excess amounts it may
exert an antagonistic effect on copper, causing a
secondary copper deficiency in situations when the
supply of copper is otherwise adequate. Conversely, a
low molybdenum intake may result in copper
poisoning at normal copper levels. Corresponding
problems in humans have not been reported.
The mean crustal concentration is 19 mg kg-1, and
the median in soil is 50. The reason for this difference
is not obvious; perhaps plant pumping may explain
part of its behavior. As yet there is no firmly
established biological function in humans or higher
animals, but some findings indicate that nickel
functions either as a cofactor or structural component
in specific metalloenzymes, or as a bio-ligand cofactor
facilitating the intestinal absorption of the ferric ion
(Nielsen 1987a). The toxicity of nickel is relatively
low, but nickel allergy is a significant problem in
humans. Nickel deficiency problems seem not to have
been reported either for humans or livestock.
The mean crustal concentration is 0.083 mg kg-1,
and the median in soils is 0.4 mg kg-1. This differ-
ence may partly be explained by atmospheric supply
of selenium from volcanoes, air pollution, and marine
emissions, but it is also conceivable that soils from
Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535529
areas geochemically poor in selenium were under-
represented in the database on which the soil median
was based. Selenium concentrations in soils however
show extreme geographical variations. This along
with the narrow range of safe and adequate intake
means that geomedical problems have been identified
in humans and livestock both in relation to selenium
deficiency and excess. In the USA, there are large
areas in the Great Plains where selenium-rich soils
are present, and some plants may reach levels toxic to
livestock. Wheat from these areas has long been the
main source of flour for bread baking in Norway,
which is assumed to be one of the main reasons for the
good selenium status in the Norwegian population
(Meltzer et al. 1993). On the other hand, the selenium-
deficiency-related disorder white muscle disease in
animals has been commonly observed in several states
of the northeast as well as the northwest of the USA
(Muth and Allaway 1963).
China is another country where soils show
extremely variable selenium contents geographically
(Fordyce 2005) and where significant geomedical
problems are evident, both in low-selenium and high-
selenium districts. Geographically widespread ende-
mic diseases, such as Kashin-Beck disease, an
endemic osteoarthropathy resulting in chronic arthri-
tis and deformity of the joints, and Keshan disease, a
cardiomyopathy whereby the heart muscle is dam-
aged, have both been shown to be associated with
selenium deficiency (Tan and Hou 1989). Keshan
disease was most prevalent in eroded hills where
regosols and leptosols dominated the soil landscape.
Rice seemed to concentrate Se more efficiently from
rice diet showed less selenium deficiency symptoms
that people with other eating habits. Selenium supple-
mentation to the affected populations has now reduced
these health problems substantially.
There are similarities between Kashin-Beck dis-
ease and the iodine-deficiency disorder creatinism
(Fordyce 2005). In addition, the recent establishment
of the role of a selenium-containing enzyme, iodo-
thyronine deiodonase, in thyroid function means that
selenium deficiency is now being examined in
relation to iodine deficiency disorders in a more
general sense. Concordant selenium and iodine
deficiency has been suggested to account for the
high incidence of creatinism in some countries of
Central Africa (Kohrle 1999). Selenium deficiency
has also been demonstrated in populations suffering
from iodine deficiency disorders in Sri Lanka (Ford-
yce et al. 2000).
Also in the developed countries the selenium
status varies considerably among different popula-
tions, depending on the composition of the diet.
Finland was among the countries with low selenium
status in the population around 1970. At the same
time the incidence of cardiovascular disease in
Finland was among the highest in the world, and it
was hypothesized that low selenium might be one of
the reasons. A large-scale experiment adding sele-
nium to fertilizer was therefore initiated. This led to
increased selenium content in bread grain as well as
milk, and eventually almost a doubling of serum
selenium concentration in the population (Hartikai-
La ˚g and Steinnes (1974; 1978) found that selenium
in forest soils of Norway decreased regularly with
distance from the coast from around 1.0 mg kg-1near
the coast to \0.2 mg kg-1in areas shielded from
marine influence, suggesting that the ocean may be a
significant source of selenium to coastal terrestrial
areas. This seemed surprising considering the extre-
melylowcontentofseleniuminseawater(0.1 lg l-1).
Cutter and Bruland (1984) however showed that
organic selenide made up around 80% of total
dissolved selenium in ocean surface waters. Mosher
et al. (1987) observed anomalous enrichment of
selenium in marine aerosols, and found that the
concentration was related to primary productivity in
the sea. Cooke and Bruland (1987) studied the
speciation of dissolved selenium in surface water and
observed the formation of volatile organo-selenium
compounds, mainly dimethyl selenide, (CH3)2Se. On
that basis they hypothesized that out-gassing of
dimethyl selenide may be an important removal
mechanism for dissolved selenium from aquatic sys-
tems. Thus, it seems that biologically driven transport
from the ocean to continental areas naturally low in
selenium may be a significant geomedical factor.
The mean crustal concentration is 53 mg kg-1, lower
than the 90 mg kg-1median reported for soils.
Vanadium is an essential element for some marine
organisms and has long been suspected to have a
biological function in humans and domestic animals
530Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535
as well. So far, however, there has been no demon-
stration that vanadium deficiency reproducibly and
consistently impairs a biological function in any
higher animal (Nielsen 1987b).
The mean crustal concentration is 52 mg kg-1, lower
than the 90 mg kg-1median reported for soils. Zinc
is one of the most important essential trace elements
in human nutrition, being essential for the functioning
of a great number of enzymes. Examples of the
essential role of zinc are (1) its utmost importance
during pregnancy, pregnant women requiring much
more zinc in their diet than otherwise (Jameson
1982), (2) its importance for brain growth in infants
(Prohaska 1982), and (3) its extreme importance in
immunocompetence (Nauss and Newberne 1982).
Red meat is a particularly good source of zinc
nutrition, and whole grains, pulses, and unpolished
rice are also important sources of daily zinc intake
Large areas of the world have soils that are unable
to supply staple crops, such as rice, maize, and wheat,
with sufficient zinc. According to Alloway (2005),
zinc deficiency is the most widespread essential trace
element deficiency in the world, perhaps affecting as
much as one third of the world’s human population.
In several countries large proportions of the arable
soils are affected by zinc deficiency, such as in India
where around 45% of soils are deficient in zinc
(Singh 2001). Zinc deficiency was first observed and
reported among rural inhabitants of the Middle East
in the early 1960s (Nauss and Newberne 1982).
Dietary zinc deficiencies are also found in industri-
alized countries such as USA (Nauss and Newberne
1982) and Sweden (Abdulla et al. 1982). Moderate
zinc deficiency has been cited as a major etiological
factor in the adolescent nutritional dwarfism syn-
drome in the Middle East, the cardinal features of
which are severe delay of sexual maturation and
dwarfism (Hambidge et al. 1987). Phytate intake is
assumed to adversely affect zinc metabolism, and
consumption of phytate-rich bread has been sug-
gested as a reason for the above problem (Reinhold
et al. 1973). Other studies however have failed to
demonstrate a significant inhibitory effect of phytate
on zinc uptake (Hambidge et al. 1987). Recently it
was suggested that fetal Zn deficiency contributes to
the pathogenesis in adults (Maret and Sandstead
Radiation from natural sources is the major source of
radiation exposure to humans (Steinnes 1990). Nat-
ural radiation sources are classified into external and
internal sources. External radiation sources consist of
two components: an extraterrestrial one in the form of
cosmic rays and a terrestrial one from radioactive
nuclides present in the geological environment, in
building materials, and in air. The internal sources
comprise the naturally occurring radionuclides that
are taken into the human body. In areas with normal
geochemical background, the internal sources con-
tribute about two thirds of the effective radiation
exposure to humans (UNSCEAR 1982).
The radioactive nuclides responsible for more than
99% of the radiation exposure from terrestrial sources
are238U and its radioactive decay products (61%),
232Th and its radioactive decay products (19%), and
40K (18%). When it comes to internal exposure, the
238U chain is even more important because one of its
members,222Rn, is a gas. This isotope of radon has a
half-life of 3.82 days and is supplied to the human
body by inhalation. The radiation dose provided by
222Rn and its decay products is about 40% of the total
exposure for the average population, but can be much
greater for people living in areas with high uranium
in the ground. The
radiation dose is less than 20% of that from the238U
series, in spite of the fact that thorium is four times as
abundant as uranium in the Earth’s crust. One reason
for this is the shorter half-life of
compared to that of222Rn.
In a recent review paper (Appleton 2005) the
sources and human health impact of radon were
discussed in detail, with examples mainly from the
USA and UK. The radon problem is closely associ-
ated with rocks high in uranium, such as uraniferous
granites, marine black shales, and phosphate rock.
Most of the exposure to radon results from living
indoors. Radon in indoor air comes from gas derived
from soils and rocks beneath the building, with
smaller amounts from degassing of domestic water
into the indoor air and from building materials.
232Th chain also has a radon
220Rn, but its contribution to the internal
220Rn (55 s)
Environ Geochem Health (2009) 31:523–535531
Contribution from domestic water is normally small
except where ground water is the source of water
supply. The main health effect of radon is lung
cancer. In the USA radon in the indoor air contributes
to about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Only
smoking causes more lung cancer deaths. These
estimates are based on case-control studies consider-
ing individual radon exposure and smoking histories.
Considerable efforts have been made in many
countriestomap the naturalbackgroundradiation,and
occurrences of anomalously high levels have been
identified in a great number of cases, sometimes
extending over considerable areas. The most well-
known cases appear to be the monazite-bearing areas
in Kerala on the southwest coast of India, where
thorium is the main radioactive element, and similar
areas in Brazil (Cullen and Franca 1977). In a
nationwide geochemical reconnaissance study in
Canada, several examples of a broad regional nature
of uranium anomalies were demonstrated (Painter
etal.1994).Itisnotyet known however towhatextent
human health may be associated with the regional
distribution of natural radioactivity. Cohen (1997)
reported a negative correlation between radon and
high background areas of India and Brazil, but the
output appeared to be somewhat limited, e.g., because
of small exposed populations and inadequate medical
records (Cullen and Franca 1977).
Need for future geomedical studies
Regional differences in chromium, copper, iron,
iodine, selenium, and zinc in the human diet and
excesses of arsenic, cadmium, fluorine, and selenium
do occur in both developed and developing countries,
but their effects are usually more evident in the latter,
largely because of malnutrition and reliance on local
food products (Oliver 1997). The extent of geomed-
ical problems in developing countries is therefore
potentially very large, and much work needs to be
done in order to solve these problems. As evident
from examples in this paper, there is a considerable
activity in many developing countries regarding some
of the known problems related to soil and health.
Very likely, however, the extent of geomedical
problems is even greater than so far anticipated,
and it therefore remains as an important area of
interdisciplinary research for the foreseeable future.
Soil scientists should feel responsibility for a signif-
icant part of this activity.
As also indicated in the foregoing text, geomedical
problems do exist also in developed countries, in
spite of the more balanced diet available in these
countries. One particular development that may be
followed closely in this respect is the rapid develop-
ment of organic farming (Steinnes 2004). Organic
farming is dependent on approaches different from
those used in conventional agriculture in order to
compensate for deficiencies of essential nutrients in
the soil. If the farmers and their advisers have
insufficient knowledge about the local geochemical
conditions and the demands for micronutrients in
plants and animals, they may face diseases in crops
and animals, reduced agricultural production, and
inferior product quality. The practices accepted for
use in organic farming should be able to account for
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