The Influence of Clays on Human Health: a Medical Geology Perspective

  • Robert B. FinkelmanEmail author


Clay is unique especially from the perspective of medical geology, that is, the impacts of geologic materials and geologic processes on animal and human health. Clay is the only natural material that can impact human health through all routes of exposure: ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact. Moreover, these impacts can be harmful as well as beneficial. Ingestion of clay, a form of geophagy, has been practiced for millennia and is still widely practiced today. Humanoids have been ingesting clay for at least two million years to ease indigestion and counteract poisons. Some additional benefits may accrue from eating clays such as providing some nutrients but these benefits are far outweighed by the likely negative consequences such as tissue abrasion, intestinal blockage, anemia, exposure to pathogens and toxic trace elements, and potassium overdose. Inhalation of airborne minerals including clays has impacted the heath of millions. In the 1930s thousands of people living in the Dust Bowl in the U.S. southwest inhaled copious amounts of clay contributing to deadly ‘dust pneumonia.’ Using clay as a poultice to stem bleeding and cure certain skin ailments is an age-old practice that still has many adherents. A classic recent example of the antibacterial properties of clay is the use of certain clays to cure Buruli ulcer, a flesh eating disease. However, walking barefoot on clays in certain volcanic soils can result in non-filarial podoconiosis or elephantiasis. The absence of clays in soils can have serious health consequences. In South Africa, clay-poor soils yield crops lacking in essential nutrients and may be the principal cause of Msileni joint disease. Clearly, a detailed knowledge of the clays in the environment can have significant benefits to human health and wellbeing.


Geophagy Mseleni Joint Disease Pharmaceuticals Pneumoconiosis Podoconiosis Soil 


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Copyright information

© The Clay Minerals Society 2019
AE: J.-H. Choy

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Geosciences DepartmentUniversity of Texas at DallasRichardsonUSA

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