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Geologic Impacts on Human Health: Joseph E. Bunnell

Project Title: Geologic Impacts on Human Health
Mendenhall Fellow: Joseph E. Bunnell, (703) 648-6497,
Duty Station: Reston
Start Date: January 16, 2001
Education: Ph.D., 2000 (Molecular Microbiology and Immunology), The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health
Research Advisor: Robert B. Finkelman, (703) 648-6412,
      Joe Bunnell

Project Description: Research focus is on a geospatial analysis of tick-borne disease risk in the Middle Atlantic region. Statistically significant environmental factors that predict relative tick abundance have been identified using geographic information systems (GIS) technology. Ticks were tested for infection with pathogens including the causative agents of Lyme disease and human granulocytic ehrlichiosis (HGE), and the combined information allows one to assess relative human disease risk based on a set of environmental parameters. Lyme tickIncorporation of the data into a statistical model that accounts for spatial autocorrelation revealed that elevation, distance to bodies of water, distance to forest, and soil type are significantly correlated to tick abundance.

Detailed examination of soils data has led to the working hypothesis that important interactions occur among soil texture, alkalinity, and moisture regimes that directly regulate tick survival success. Field and laboratory experiments are being designed to test this hypothesis. Climate data are being introduced to the GIS, adding a temporal dimension.

Other ongoing projects include an assessment of the role of residential coal combustion in unusually high rates of lung cancer in Guizhou Province, China, and a study of a severe kidney disease in the Balkans that may be linked to groundwater from Pliocene lignite aquifers. Expanding on the latter work, Joe has designed an interdisciplinary study to determine if linkages exist between kidney disease and lignite deposits in the United States.

Outreach and service activities have included helping develop a credential certificate program in Medical Geology at George Washington University, and acting as liaison to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the World Health Organization, state and local public health agencies, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Joe is on the Organizing Committee for a conference (Healthy Ecosystems, Healthy People) in June, 2002, hosted by the International Society for Ecosystem Health. He will chair a Medical Geology Working Group.

Bunnell J.E., 2001, The environment and human health: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-054-01 (

Finkelman, R.B., Skinner, C.W., Plumlee, G.S., and Bunnell, J.E., 2001. Medical geology: A 10,000 year-old opportunity (popular science article describing the history of Medical Geology and some examples of current research in the field): Geotimes, v. 46, no. 11, p. 20-23 (

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Last modified: 16:08:26 Thu 13 Dec 2012