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The past, present, and future of soils and human health studies

Authors: Brevik, E. C. and Sauer, T. J. (2015)


The idea that human health is tied to the soil is not a new one. As far back as circa 1400 BC the Bible depicts Moses as understanding that fertile soil was essential to the well-being of his people. In 400 BC the Greek philosopher Hippocrates provided a list of things that should be considered in a proper medical evaluation, including the properties of the local ground. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, American farmers had recognized that soil properties had some connection to human health. In the modern world, we recognize that soils have a distinct influence on human health. We recognize that soils influence (1) food availability and quality (food security), (2) human contact with various chemicals, and (3) human contact with various pathogens. Soils and human health studies include investigations into nutrient supply through the food chain and routes of exposure to chemicals and pathogens. However, making strong, scientific connections between soils and human health can be difficult. There are multiple variables to consider in the soil environment, meaning traditional scientific studies that seek to isolate and manipulate a single variable often do not provide meaningful data. The complete study of soils and human health also involves many different specialties such as soil scientists, toxicologists, medical professionals, anthropologists, etc. These groups do not traditionally work together on research projects, and do not always effectively communicate with one another. Climate change and how it will affect the soil environment/ecosystem going into the future is another variable affecting the relationship between soils and health. Future successes in soils and human health research will require effectively addressing difficult issues such as these.


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