Se is essential to human and animal health but can be toxic in excess. An interest in its geochemistry has developed alongside a greater understanding of its function in a number of health conditions. Geology exerts a strong control on the Se status of the surface environment; low-Se rock-types (0·05–0·09 mg Se/kg) make up the majority of rocks occurring at the Earth's surface, which in turn account for the generally low levels of Se in most soils. However, there are exceptions such as associations with sulfide mineralisation and in some types of sedimentary rocks (e.g. black shales) in which contents of Se can be much higher. Baseline geochemical data now enable a comparison to be made between environmental and human Se status, although a direct link is only likely to be seen if the population is dependent on the local environment for sustenance. This situation is demonstrated with an example from the work of the British Geological Survey in the Se-deficiency belt of China. The recent fall in the daily dietary Se intake in the UK is discussed in the context of human Se status and declining use of North American wheat in bread making. Generally, US wheat has ten times more Se than UK wheat, attributed to the fact that soils from the wheat-growing belt of America are more enriched in Se to a similar order of magnitude. In agriculture effective biofortification of crops with Se-rich fertilisers must be demonstrably safe to the environment and monitored appropriately and baseline geochemical data will enable this process to be done with confidence.
(Online publication December 08 2009)