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GEMAS – soil, geology and health implications. Anna Ladenberger. “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy” Paracelsus (1493-1541). (Source:

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Gemas soil geology and health implications
GEMAS – soil, geology and health implications

Anna Ladenberger

“All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy”

Paracelsus (1493-1541)


Soil composition and health implications:

  • Rocks and minerals → food, water, air → human body;

  • Soil is a direct source of nutrients,

  • micro-elements and macro-elements – so called mineral elements;

  • Geochemical mapping: detection of geochemical anomalies and

  • establishing natural background level, at continental and regional scale;

  • GEMAS results can be used to elaborate the relationship between natural

  • geological factors and health in humans and animals;

  • GEMAS results improve the understanding of the influence of ordinary

  • environmental factors on the geographical distribution of health problems;

  • GEMAS results can be used in environmental medicine, environmental

  • geochemistry, medical geology, etc.


e.g., Ca, Fe, K, Mg, P, S

(required in large amounts in diet)


e.g., B, Cu, Co, Cr, F, I, Li, Mn, Mo, Ni, Se, V, Zn

Examples of toxic elements:

As, Be, Cr, Cd, Hg, Pb, Tl


Sixteen trace elements are established as being essential for good health

  • bone and membrane structure (Ca)

  • water and electrolyte balance (Na, K, Cl)

  • metabolic catalysis (Zn, Cu, Se, Mg, Mo)

  • oxygen binding and transport (Fe)

  • hormone effects (I, Cr)


assimilation increase


deficit good no difference

MICRONUTRIENTS (B, Cu, Co, Cr, F, I, Li, Mn, Mo, Ni, Se, V, Zn)

deficit good toxic lethal

NON-ESSENTIAL (As, Be, Cd, Pb, Sb, Sn, Ti)

tolerable toxic lethal

(From Siegel, 2002)

Element bio availability
Element (bio) for good availability

  • Soil varies widely in concentrations of macro- and micro- (trace) elements, even without human induced environmental

  • contamination and agriculture.

  • Soil (or sediment) horizonscanhave high concentrations of:

    • Ions released from weathering;

    • Ions introduced as fertilisers (P, K, S);

    • Environmental pollutants (heavy metals, etc.).

  • High concentrations do not mean that the element

  • is ’available’!

  • Zinc for good

    • Zinc (Zn) is an essential micronutrient

    • Zinc deficiency is widespread in soil

    • Nearly 50% of the soil on which cereals

    • are grown have levels of available Zn low enough to cause Zn deficiency

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.63.2, p.462)

    (Alloway, 2008)

    (Map of Zinc deficiency in World crops From Alloway, 2008, Fig. 6.5, p.109)

    250 mg/kg

    60 mg/kg

    10 mg/kg

    The median in Ap soil is 45 mg/kg with a typical range from 10 to 200 mg/kg.

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.63.4, p.463)

    Zinc for good

    • Zinc

    • essential for over 300 enzymes

    • antioxidant

    • Symptoms of Zn deficiency include:

    • poor plant growth

    • loss of appetite (anorexia)

    • decreased immune function

    (From Mann et al., 2014, Fig. 13.17, p.219)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.63.5, p.465)

    Zinc for good

    (Source: )

    Once identified, zinc-deficient soil can be easily

    treated with fertilisers containing zinc to provide an adequate supply of zinc to crops!

    Arsenic for good

    • toxicity: arsine gas > inorganic (As3+)

    • > organic (As3+) > inorganic (As5+) >

    • organic (As5+) > As0

    • up to 60% of arsenic in soil can be bioavailable!

    • keratosis, skin lesions

    • cancerogenic (skin,

    • lungs, bladder, kidney,

    • liver)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.9.2, p.149)

    10 mg/kg

    (From: Centeno & Finkelman, 2007, Photo 2b, p.64)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.9.4, p.150)

    Arsenic for good

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.9.5, p.152)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, map on DVD)

    Lazio region, high As in groundwater

    (25-80 µg per l),

    used for crop irrigation

    Cornwall, UK, up to 2% As in soil

    Massif Central, high As in soil (young volcanism, Au, Pb-Zn deposits)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.9.5, p.153)

    On the local scale for good

    (From Ladenberger et al., 2013, p.18)

    • Black shale -

    • Natural source of As

      • (black shale is often enriched in trace elements, such as arsenic, cadmium; some are essential, others are not)

    Skellefte mining district -

    High As in soil and groundwater

    Environmental and health problems?

    To summarise….. for good

    • GEMAS data can be applied to soil quality assessment

    • GEMAS data show the geographical distribution

    • of potential hazard areas at the continental scale

    • GEMAS data highlight the potential links between soil

    • chemistry and health issues

    • GEMAS data can be used for risk characterisation

    • and identification of areas prone to element deficiency

    Thank you for good

    [email protected]

    - elemental (Hg for good 0)

    - inorganic (mercurous, Hg1+ or mercuric, Hg2+)

    - organic (methyl-, ethyl-, or phenylmercury)


    (From Ottesen et al., 2014, Fig. 4, p.4)

    Residential SGV

    Allowed limit according to Natural Protection Agency



    Mercury for good

    • Hg:

    • in food (fish);

    • exposure from dental amalgam fillings;

    • disinfectant, antibacterial, antiparasitic;

    • crop fungicide (methyl mercury);

    • vaccine preservative, nasal spray.

    • Health effects:

    • neurobehavioral disorders;

    • severe mental retardation;

    • coma;

    • pneumonitis, respiratory failure;

    • kidney failure;

    • acrodynia (painful extremities, apathy, pink colour, photofobia).


    (From Ottesen et al., 2013, Fig. 8, p.10, based on data from Wheeler & Ummel, 2008)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.29.5, p.267)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.29.2, p.264)

    (From Ottesen et al., 2013, Fig. 6, p.8)


    Selenium Wheeler & Ummel, 2008)

    • mobile under oxidising alkaline conditions (pH>7.5)

    • binds to organic matter

    • immobile under reducing conditions

    • immobile under low pH – forms complexes with Fe oxides

    • dietary source of Se: mushroom, garlic, sea food, liver and kidneys, fish, flour, whole-grain products

    • Essential element

    • (enzymes, antioxidant)

    • Anticancer activity

    • Narrow range between

    • dietary deficiency

    • (<40 µg per day)

    • and toxicity (>400 µg

    • per day)

    0.6 mg/kg

    0.4 mg/kg

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.50.4, p.389)

    Selenium Wheeler & Ummel, 2008)

    Selenosis in Limerick (cattle, horses)

    Se toxicity in drinking water


    (From Reimann et al., 2014, Fig. 11.50.5, p.391)

    (From Reimann et al., 2014, map on DVD)

    High in Se: black shale, phosphatic rocks, sulphides, coal, humus rich soil in coastal regions, volcanic ashes (tuffs), fine-grained sediments

    Anthropogenic Se: burning fossil fuels, smelting, sewage sludge, manure, pesticide, phosphate fertilisers, photocopier, anti-fungal pharmaceuticals, lubricating oils, ink

    Selenium Wheeler & Ummel, 2008)

    • Se deficiency:

    • common in Sweden, Finland, Denmark

    • heart disease (Keshan disease)

    • bone and joint disease, rheumatics

    • poor growth and development

    • weak immune respond

    • Se toxicity:

    • Se excess causes hair loss, nerve and

    • liver damage, caries, garlic smell of

    • breath, blue staining of nails;

    • Population can adapt to high selenium intake without showing major clinical symptoms.

    (Photo courtesy: Gerald F. Combs, USDA)

    (Photo courtesy: Gerald F. Combs, USDA)