Her study of how the natural environment impacts on health has taken Kim Dowling around the world, including to Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, and India. Her recent work with people in Kenya found high fluoride levels in the water which stains teeth, and affects bone growth – and even damages marriage prospects.
Kim Dowling, an associate professor at Federation University in Ballarat is among a small number of scientists pioneering the field of medical geology which looks at the impact of water, air, rocks and soil on public health.
While fluoride can strengthen teeth, too much of it can stain them and damage bones. In south-eastern Kenya, Dr Dowling found natural contamination of groundwater with high levels of fluorine and salt had caused brown stains on teeth. She introduced an education program to help address the health problem which was also damaging romantic prospects for many people.
“There is a lot of social stigma in small societies about mottled teeth, and it affects people’s ability to find a partner,” she said.
“The reason we put fluoride in water is that it decreases the number of cavities in children’s teeth. But if you have too much, it does terrible damage to teeth and bones, and in some parts of the world the groundwater has significantly elevated levels and that has significant health impacts.”
Dr Dowling said the World Health Organisation has estimated that up to 25 per cent of health problems are linked to unhealthy environments.
“There’s a lot of diseases that just wouldn’t get going if we fixed up our environment in the first place,” she said.
The medical geology field was growing and dated back to Ancient Greece. “One of the quotes from the Ancient Greeks was that, if you want to know the health of the population, you just have to look at the air they breathe, the water they drink in the places they live,” Dr Dowling said.
Dr Dowling said there were job opportunities for medical geologists that involved environmental health impact studies including for government departments and public health units, mining and other companies.