Soil is a crucial part of public health, despite it being the potential carrier of harmful bugs, says Environmental microbiologist, Dr Ian Pepper, from the University of Arizona. Dr Pepper recently spoke at the Soil Science convention in Brisbane.
He says that healthy soil can keep groundwater clean and stop introduced pathogens from flourishing.
"Much of the time people tend to associate soils with agriculture. I'm saying it has much more profound impacts than just that," says Pepper, who specialises in soils, water, and waste management and re-use.
Dr Pepper claims it all began with the mining of soil commencing after the discovery of penicillin. Finding useful attributes in soil has the ability to provide life-saving medicines such as antibiotics, anti-cancer agents and immunosuppressive drugs.
“The soil can act as a natural filter, it can kill off pathogens, it can biodegrade organics and do wonderful job of protecting groundwater,” said Pepper.
While there are naturally harmful bugs in the soil, such as Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), legionella and clostridium, they are generally low risk and measures can be taken to avoid contact with them.
Pepper claims that a healthy soil is able to kill off harmful introduced pathogens.
The other important, pathogen to be aware of are E. coli and cryptosporidium, which are present in human and animal waste.
"The big proviso is that we manage things appropriately - that we maintain soil health so we can protect human health," says Pepper.
Therefore, to maintain soil health it is best practice to avoid overloading the soil with animal waste and avoid intensive farming that depletes soil organic matter, creates acid soils, and kills off soil microbes essential for healthy soil.
The other important precaution is to test groundwater for heavy metals, which include harmful arsenic.
Adapted from Australian Broadcasting Commission, News in Science article: ‘Soil is crucial to public health: experts’, 27 July, 2010 by Anna Salleh http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/07/27/2962532.htm