Investigation of the possible connection of rock and soil geochemistry to the occurrence of high rates of neurodegenerative diseases on Guam and a hypothesis for the cause of the diseases

Open-File Report 2003-126




High incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, mainly dementia, parkinsonism, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, occur on the island of Guam (Koerner, 1952; Kurland and Mulder, 1954). The occurrence and description of the diseases and a summary of the investigations can be found in Perl (1997). The diseases have been more prevalent along the southern coast, particularly the small villages of Umatac, Merizo, and Inarajan (Reed and Brody, 1975; Roman, 1996; and Perl, 1997) (fig. 1), and referred to as the southern villages in this report. Tertiary volcanic rocks underlie most of the southern part of the island, including these villages. The northern part of Guam, with lower incidences of the diseases, consists of carbonate rocks. Epidemiological studies beginning in the early 1950’s failed to show the cause to be genetic etiology (Plato and others, 1986; Zhang and others, 1990). In recent studies, the search for pathogenic mechanisms has shifted to environmental factors. Excesses or deficiencies of various elements from dietary sources including drinking water can have an effect on human health. These deficiencies or excesses can usually be attributed to the geochemical composition of the rocks and derived soils that underlie the area. An example is the high concentration of Se in soil associated with the occurrence of selenosis in adults (Mills, 1996). Yase (1972) suggested that the neurodegenerative diseases on Guam may be related to accumulation of trace elements such as manganese and aluminum, both of which may cause neurodegeneration. It has been suggested that a deficiency in calcium and magnesium in the soil and water along with readily available aluminum could be connected to the occurrence of the diseases (Gajdusek, 1982; Yanagihara and others, 1984; Garruto and others, 1989). Some of the studies investigated metal exposure, particularly aluminum and manganese, and deficiencies in calcium and magnesium (Garruto and others, 1984). Aluminum has been shown to have neurotoxic effects (MacDonald and Martin, 1988), and aluminum has been implicated in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease and similar dementia by Perl and others (1982). Studies of soils developed on volcanic rocks on Guam and other islands by McLachlan and others (1989) found that soils on Guam averaged 42-fold higher yield of elutable aluminum than soils developed on volcanic rocks on Jamaica or Palau. They did not detect unusually high dietary aluminum or low dietary calcium, but concluded that the soils and possibly the dusts of Guam might be a major source of aluminum entering the body of the inhabitants.

This study was conducted to investigate the geochemistry of the soils and rocks of the volcanic southern part of the island of Guam, particularly in the vicinity of the three southern villages (Umatac, Merizo, and Inarajan) with high incidences of the diseases. In addition to total chemical analyses of the soils and rocks, various extractions of soils were carried out. Both excesses and deficiencies of various elements were looked for. Because soluble aluminum in the soil was shown by McLachlan and others (1989) to be unusually high, water-soluble extractions as well as sequential extractions of the soils were carried out. In addition, elements such as aluminum found in dust can traverse the nose-brain barrier in experimental animals (Sunderman, 2000) and respiratory epithelium is known to contain the highest concentration of aluminum in the human body (Tipton and others, 1957). The availability of elements, particularly aluminum from human inhalation of dust, derived from soil, was investigated. The available elements were determined by extractions of soils using a simulated lung-fluid extraction.

In order to compare the results of the chemical data of rocks and soils from Guam to other rocks and soils elsewhere, samples of similar rocks and soils were collected in the western United States and similar analyses to those for the Guam samples carried out.

The complete chemical analyses of the soils, rocks, and streambed sediments as well as descriptions of the methods used can be found in Miller and others (2002).

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Investigation of the possible connection of rock and soil geochemistry to the occurrence of high rates of neurodegenerative diseases on Guam and a hypothesis for the cause of the diseases
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Version 1.0; Supersedes Open-File Report 02-475
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Office of the AD Energy and Minerals, and Environmental Health
44 p.