Involuntary soil ingestion and geophagia: A source and sink of mineral nutrients and potentially harmful elements to consumers of earth materials

Type Article
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)954-968
Number of pages15
JournalApplied Geochemistry
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2012
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Members of the animal kingdom, including humans, can ingest soil either involuntarily or deliberately, the latter practice being known as geophagy or geophagia. This paper briefly documents the often significant quantities of soil that can be consumed, but discusses in detail the importance of this ingestion in supplying mineral nutrients and potentially harmful elements (PHEs) to consumers of earth materials. Whilst geophagia is recognised as a multi-causal behaviour, a prevalent explanation is the ‘nutritional hypothesis’ where the deliberate consumption of soil is attributed to an attempt to regulate a mineral nutrient imbalance such as sodium deficiency. When soils encounter digestive fluids, chemical elements can be solubilised and are potentially available for absorption, sometimes to an extent where toxicity symptoms are evident. In grassland agricultural systems, two main pathways of chemical elements are recognised, the soil–plant–animal flow being complemented by the more direct soil–animal transfer of mineral nutrients and PHEs. In locations where the pasture herbage absorbs very low concentrations of chemical elements relative to the soil content, ingested soil particles can often be observed to be the major source of mineral nutrients/PHEs consumed by livestock. However, further research is required in quantifying the bioaccessibility – defined as the fraction that is soluble in the gastrointestinal tract and is potentially available for absorption – of soil-elements to animals. In this respect, regarding human nutrition, for more than a decade considerable work has been undertaken on the development of in vitro bioaccessibility tests (IVBA) that can rapidly and inexpensively estimate this portion of chemical elements from ingested soils. Work to date has demonstrated that significant amounts of some mineral nutrients, especially iron, can be bioaccessible to humans, as can quantities of PHEs such as lead. Paradoxically, some ingested soils can also result in mineral nutrient deficiency problems in humans and other members of the animal kingdom attributable, for example, to the adsorptive properties of earth materials that can effectively bind chemical elements.