Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 8, No. 10, October 2012
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Geonotic Diseases: a New Taxonomy

Carolyn Raffensperger
Executive Director, Science & Environmental Health Network

This articles was originally published in Science & Environmental Health Network, 13 August 2012
Reprinted with Permission

The Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) engages communities and governments in the effective application of science to protect and restore public and ecosystem health.

The Network:

  • Encourages the practice of science in the public interest and the accurate interpretation of scientific information;
  • Identifies information, ethical concepts, and logic that have the potential to provoke essential change; and
  • Helps communities, organizations, and governments develop and implement sound environmental policies.


1. There are taxonomies of human health and disease. Taxonomies are conceptual frameworks that organize our thinking by grouping things that share characteristics. One taxonomy of disease is based on the system of the body that is diseased: the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system. Within those systems there can be various disorders such as birth defects, cancer, or poisoning. Another taxonomy is the kind of disease: infectious disease, injuries, or chronic disease, as examples. Within the category of those diseases there can be further subdivisions. Within the domain of infectious diseases there are those known as zoonotic diseases. These are diseases that cross between species and are often carried by a vector such as mosquitoes or ticks.

2. Epidemiology specializes in two kinds of disease,  infectious and chronic. Frequently epidemiologists studying infectious disease investigate causes because there is usually a direct cause and a single effect with infectious diseases. Chronic disease specialists often study effects because many chronic diseases have multi-factorial causes making it harder to study causes.

3. Since the rise of industrialization the disease pattern has changed from primarily infectious disease to primarily chronic disease. Small pox and polio have been replaced by cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.

4. When it focuses on effects, rather than causes of chronic disease, the medical professions emphasize treatment of disease, rather than prevention of disease.

5. The causes of chronic diseases are often complex, ecological (both biological and geological) and result from cumulative impacts of multiple stressors.

6. Within the category of chronic disease there is a subset of diseases that are Geonotic. That is, they are geologic, mineral or chemical in nature. These diseases result from disruptions or alterations in the geosphere. The vector or cause of the diseases are not living organisms, but geochemical materials.

7. Some Geonotic diseases can be passed from the Earth to humans and from humans to the Earth.  This is a feedback loop between the geochemical cycles of the Earth and living systems.

8. Kinds of Geonotic disease causes

  • A. concentrating geologic materials such as carbon or nitrogen–aerosol loading and air pollution, nitrogen loading and water pollution
  • B. creating and using toxic chemicals such as DDT
  • C. altering geochemical cycles such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus in the body and on the Earth
  • D. depleting certain materials such as phosphorus
  • E. dispersing some materials such as mercury

9. Examples of kinds of Geonotic diseases

  • A. Lead, Mercury and Arsenic poisoning
  • B. Asthma
  • C. Many cancer
  • D.Blue baby syndrome.
  • E. Asbestosis
  • F. Black Lung Disease
  • G. Phosphorus deficiency

10. Almost all of the Geonotic diseases can be attributed to violating ecological systems conditions as expressed in frameworks like the Natural Step.

11. Every geospherical system has been affected by human disruption: air, water, soil, fire, the deep Earth.

12. Scale matters with Geonotic diseases. Large scale mining such as mountain top removal or fracking, or oil drilling in the gulf, industrialized agriculture that concentrates and disrupts materials like nitrogen and selenium all have serious geologic consequences that are direct causes of human health disease. The garbage patch and the massive quantities of plastic (a geologic material) in the ocean, in addition to the acidification of the ocean changes the ecology of the ocean in ways that affect human health. Similarly small, micro changes in the human body of iron, calcium, phosphorus or endocrine disrupting chemicals can lead to serious diseases from reproductive and neurological disorders to obesity.

13. Increasingly infectious disease will be a result of geologic disturbances such as greater heat, more flooding which will alter the habitat of humans and biological vectors.

14. Ultimately, humans have replaced their relationship with the sun and with plants, to a relationship with fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. These new relationships are not conducive to health.

Geonotic diseases are a taxonomic reality of ecological medicine which is based on the truism that humans are as healthy (or not) as the surrounding environment.  Unless we change course, the future of human disease is more geonotic chronic diseases.  The future of the Earth is more disruptions of natural systems that will create more human disease and more disease of other living things.

Carolyn Raffensperger is Executive Director of the Science & Environmental Health Network (SEHN). The SEHN was founded in 1994 by a consortium of North American environmental organizations (including the Environmental Defense Fund, The Environmental Research Foundation, and OMB Watch) concerned about the misuse of science in ways that failed to protect the environment and human health. Granted 501(c)(3) status in 1999, SEHN operates as a virtual organization, currently with six staff and seven board members working from locations across the U.S. Since 1998, SEHN has been the leading proponent in the United States of the Precautionary Principle as a new basis for environmental and public health policy. SEHN has worked with issue driven organizations, national environmental health coalitions, municipal and state governments, and several NGO/government teams to implement precautionary policies at local and state levels.

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