Freshman Seminar: Geology and Human Health

Jeffrey Catalano, Washington University in St. Louis


This course explores the connections between human health and geological processes. It is taught through a series of case studies that first focus on the geological origin of a process that affects human health, and then explores the specific health impacts. It seeks to integrate key geology concepts and basic medical information, particularly in areas of epidemiology and toxicology. In addition to the major lecture material, students in the course conduct two team projects to develop risk assessments of a specific geologic hazard and also complete as individual project.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This course is a freshman seminar with no prerequisites and is not a a prerequisite for any additional course. The course is open only to freshman. Students arrived with a wide-array of interests, primarily in the areas of environmental studies and global health. This course appears to not appeal to pre-medical students because of the group projects, which does not provide them with enough personal control over their grades.

Course Content:

Key concepts in geology are introduced as well as the pathways through which natural systems affect human health. A series of case studies will be presented, each describing a specific health hazard and its geological origin. The first set of studies will focus on human health effects associated with windborne exposure to harmful materials, including asbestos, dust and aerosols, and the products of coal combustion. The course will then use the topic of mercury, which is emitted into to atmosphere and then accumulates in aquatic systems, to transition to water and soil borne pathways of exposure. This will be followed by case studies exploring water availability and quality, arsenic in groundwater, with a special emphasis on widespread arsenic poisoning in South and Southeast Asia, lead in mining areas and urban soils, and radon and radioactive materials.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to understand the connection between geological processes and human health, and how these are altered by anthropogenic activities, comprehend the physical, chemical, and biological processes associated with natural health risks, and become familiar with a scientific approach for evaluating risks to human health posed by geological processes.

Course Features:

This course involves lectures, in class discussions, two group projects to develop basic risk assessments of a geological process that affects human health, and a final project that explores some aspects of geology and human health.

Course Philosophy:

This course sought to introduce students to the types of geological processes and concepts that they will encounter in later courses in the field. The group activities and in-class discussions allowed students to inquire about aspects of the course material that were of personal interest to them.


Students were assessed through written examinations, one introductory homework assignment, two group projects that resulted in collaborative oral and written reports, and a final individual project that produced oral and written reports.


Syllabus from Fall 2015 (Acrobat (PDF) 246kB May25 17)

References and Notes:

No textbook was assigned
Readings were given from a variety of sources and provided to the students. Especially useful resources include:
  • Environmental Geology, by Montgomery, McGraw Hill.
  • Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, by Botkin and Keller, Wiley.
  • Essentials of Medical Geology, Revised, by Selinus and others, 2013, Springer.
  • Geology and Health: Closing the Gap, by Skinner and Berger, 2003, Oxford University Press.
  • Medical Mineralogy and Geochemistry, by Sahai and Schoonen, 2006, Geochemical Society and Mineralogical Society of America.