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Pollutants and Human Health in the Age of Man

Approximately 160 000–200 000 years ago a biological change took place that would disrupt the natural equilibrium of the Earth, an equilibrium that had existed for the previous 4.5 ga. At that time Homo sapiens, evolved in east Africa and, from about 70,000 years ago, began to spread around the Earth. At first, as hunter-gatherers Homo sapiens made little impact on Earth systems, but from about 9000 years ago settled agriculture saw the first anthropogenic changes to chemicals in the environment.

Soils were depleted of essential trace elements and this was reflected by loss of stature and increased prevalence of disease in human skeletal remains; many other species extinctions date from this time. Mining and mineral working, initially for gold but later for copper, tin and other raw materials, caused local pollution – especially with arsenic and mercury.

Large-scale disruption of the Earth system began in Europe in the seventeenth century with the agricultural and industrial revolution in Britain. This was increasingly dependent on the use of fossil fuels for energy and agrichemicals, and by the second part of the twentieth century the natural equilibrium of the Earth had been destroyed. There was an increasing impact as a result of burgeoning populations, increased consumption of energy-intensive animal- rather than vegetable-based protein and a demand for material possessions and travel. New chemicals were developed for plastics, detergents and pharmaceuticals, and, more recently, new materials such as engineered nanomaterials have begun to be released into the environment.

Politicians are battling to deal with just one of the chemical impacts of these changes – the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with the potential to cause massive climate change. But there are many other serious man-made chemical threats to the Earth as a planet capable of sustaining human life. The presentation will explore some of the most important of these and indicate some of the fundamental changes in human behaviour that are needed if human life on Earth is to be sustained beyond the twenty-first century.


Jane Plant


Professor Jane Plant CBE DSc FRSM FRSE FIMMM C Eng holds the Anglo American chair of Environmental Geochemistry at Imperial College, London and was, until her retirement in 2005, Chief Scientist of the British Geological Survey(BGS). She began her career working on geochemical exploration with particular reference to gold, uranium, copper and base metals. and was the distinguished lecturer for the Association of Exploration Geochemistry from 1990 -1992. She is a past President of the IMM.

Professor Plant has also published extensively on Environmental Geochemistry and was responsible for the development of the BGS G - Base programme to prepare Geochemical Baseline of the environment of the UK; the Forum of European Geological Surveys’ geochemical baseline of Europe and until 2004 together with Dr D Smith of the USGS lead the IUGS/ IAGC programme to prepare a Global Geochemical atlas. She has published widely in this field and her paper on Arsenic and Selenium was published as part of the authoritative new Treatise of Geochemistry lead by Yale and Harvard scientists She was awarded the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. A CBE and six honorary doctorates from UK and European universities for her work on the environment. She continues to lecture widely including plenary lectures at international meetings in North and South America and Europe.

Professor Plant was Chief Geochemist at the BGS from 1990 until 2000 and has been involved in several government and Parliamentary Committees. These include Chair of the DEFRA Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances( until 2008), membership of the Chemical Stakeholder Forum and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (until 2006)and acting as senior scientific adviser to the All Party Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (ongoing) and the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (ongoing). She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2005 in recognition of her work on the environment in relation to human health.



Event Details

Date: 10 October 2012
Venue: The Geological Society, London
Speaker: Jane Plant



Naomi Newbold
Tel: 020 7432 0981