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Natural Science and Public Health: Prescription for a Better Environment

rinking 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 heal
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Contact: Carolyn Bell
cbell@usgs.gov
703-648-4463
United States Geological Survey
27-Mar-2003


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