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diaper powder sample microscope image
Backscatter electron scanning electron microscope images of the diaper powder in which lead particles are brightly lit due to their higher mean atomic weight. From Karwowski and others, 2016, doi:10.1007/s10653-016-9881-6.

The potential environmental and occupational health impacts of mining and mineral processing are of great concern to land managers, regulators, the mining industry, the media, and the general public. This is the case in historical mining areas, areas of active mining, and areas of proposed future mining. In addition to the mining industry’s societal responsibility to protect the environment and the health of its workers and the public, it is clear that concerns and false perceptions about potential environmental and health impacts can play a role in the success or failure of proposed mining projects. Health driven environmental compliance, remediation, and liabilities can also have substantial economic costs. It is in the best interests of the public, regulators, land managers, and industry to have as full an understanding as possible of the potential environmental and occupational health impacts of past, current, and future mining activities.

The types and abundances of potential metal, chemical, mineral, or radioactive toxicants (toxic substance) in mineral deposits and mineral processing wastes and byproducts are predictably influenced by the geologic characteristics of the deposit type being mined, coupled with climate and the mining and processing methods used. As a result, geology-based geoenvironmental health models of mineral deposit types can be developed to:

  • Better anticipate and mitigate potential environmental and occupational health concerns associated with future mineral resource development (an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure)
  • More effectively remediate historical mining-related environmental contamination that is deleterious to health
  • Better understand pre-mining environmental health baseline conditions in mineralized areas
  • Provide basic science for regulators and land managers to use in their development of policies governing mineral resource development that protect worker and public health but that do not over-regulate.

Our objectives are to: 1) complete bioaccessibility testing on monominerallic samples of important ore and gangue minerals for selected elements of toxicological concern (lead, manganese, iron, uranium, thorium, arsenic, antimony) or technological interest (e.g., selected rare earth elements, tellurium), and 2) create a compendium of mineral deposit geoenvironmental health models. The compendium would link to recently published mineral deposit models. The geoenvironmental health models will be based in part on surveys of geology and health literature. Research results will contribute to the Mineral Resources Program's goal of understanding the lifecycle of various mineral or metal commodities.


Project Activities

Bioaccessibility Studies of Ore and Gangue Minerals

Physiologically based (in vitro) bioaccessibility or biodurability tests of common primary and secondary ore and gangue minerals found in diverse deposit types are a basic need for any geoenvironmental health model. Bioaccessibility tests measure the potential for a substance to interact (and be absorbed by) an organism and biodurability test measure the ability to resist chemical/biochemical alteration. These tests leach the minerals using various simulated body fluids (gastric, lung, lysosmal, urine, sweat, plasma). They provide an important qualitative understanding of how ore and gangue minerals (and their contained elemental toxicants) may behave chemically in the body (mineral biosolubility or biodurability, toxicant bioaccessibility, etc.) via ingestion, inhalation, or dermal absorption.

We are conducting bioaccessibility testing on 1) monominerallic samples of important ore and gangue minerals for selected elements of toxicological concern (lead, manganese, iron, uranium, thorium, arsenic, antimony) or technological interest (e.g., selected Rare Earth Elements, tellurium). Results of the tests will be incorporated into the geoenvironmental health models for deposit types in which the minerals being tested are important components of ore or gangue.

Development of Geoenvironmental Health Models of Mineral Deposits

We are developing geoenvironmental health models that summarize information about key geological, mineralogical, geochemical, and other characteristics of mineral deposit types that can affect health via occupational or environmental exposures to:

  • mineralized rocks and soils prior to mining,
  • ores, mine dusts, mine waters, mining wastes, and mineral processing materials,
  • soils, waters, dusts, and plants contaminated by mine wastes or processing byproducts.

The geoenvironmental health models will also compile for specific mineral deposit types: a) empirical health-pertinent earth-science data, and b) results of pertinent epidemiological and or toxicological studies that have been done in geologically pertinent mining districts. The health study findings will be put into a geologic context based on the appropriate deposit type. To the best of our knowledge, this type of economic geology-based classification of health data from mining, mineral processing, or smelting facilities has not been done previously by the health community.

Geoenvironmental health model development work will initially focus on high-priority deposit types in Alaska, the midcontinent rift, and deposits from which critical metals are derived, moving to other significant deposit types from which substantial production for various commodity types has occurred.



Karwowski, M.P., Morman, S.A., Plumlee, G.S., Law, T., Kelogg, M., and Woolf, A.D., 2016, Toxicants in folk remedies: implications of elevated blood lead in an American-born infant due to imported diaper powder: Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 11 p., doi:10.1007/s10653-016-9881-6.


Project Contact

Suzette Morman
Phone: 303-236-1205
Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center

Mineral Resources Program Science Priority

The use of firm, trade, and brand names is for identification purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by the U.S. government.

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