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Healing crystals, harmful craze: A UW geologist breaks down the environmental effects of the healing crystal phenomenon

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From celebrities like Kim Kardashian claiming that crystals helped her overcome her post-robbery trauma to popular beauty brands like Glossier marketing makeup infused with “genuine crystal extracts for all-day enlightenment,” there has been a boom in the crystal healing craze and its appearances in mainstream media. 

This craze stems from the belief that certain crystals can promote physical and emotional healing, and additional claims that some can emit an energy signature, frequency, and even harness the Earth's energy to interact with your body’s energy field. But have you ever wondered where these crystals come from and how seemingly every souvenir shop is able to maintain their constant stock of this naturally-created commodity? Professor Terry Swanson, a UW geologist doing research in quaternary geology, environmental geology, and geochronology, gave his own perspective on the new-age trend.

The Daily: Many websites advocating for crystal healing can supposedly trace the history of the practice back thousands of years, to the time of the ancient Egyptians. Why do you think some people have believed in the healing properties of some crystals for so long? Is there any scientific backing to these claims?

Terry Swanson: If you think about healing a disease like cancer and how the disease manifests itself in the human body, a crystal like amethyst or quartz would need to physically operate within the cellular structure of a body to restrict or inhibit cancer cell growth — a physical connection that does not exist. 

On the other hand, we all have superstitions … for things like crystals or magnets, if you have a really strong belief that brings you a positive feeling, then perhaps you could be signaling for neurotransmitters in your brain that do have a positive impact on your body. In that sense, if believing in crystals is mentally giving you positive feedback, then perhaps there's something beneficial to that. But physically and scientifically, there appears to be no real relationship to that.

The Daily: Many online retailers provide little to no details about the sourcing of the healing crystals they sell. How are common crystals like these usually extracted and what are the environmental impacts of these processes?

Swanson: Very often you might find crystals like Thundereggs in cave settings or in volcanic settings where there are large vesicles or cavities. In that sense, [these crystals] are semi-precious. If you're going in and mining it, then there would be a destructive side to that. If you have this pristine crystal, whether it's a calcite crystal or a stalactite or stalagmite, there is intrinsic beauty [in] that.

If you have a large demand for these crystals, then you have a somewhat finite resource and you're going to be having a detrimental effect on where you're going to be collecting these. Very often there are cave structures or places where you have a limited amount of them on the planet there, and it could be completely destructive to the particular environment. 

The Daily: What are some of the ethical implications one should consider if interested in buying crystals? 

Swanson: It depends on the mindset of how we think as a society and what things we value. Things like gemstones are a part of our economy, like how diamonds are. With diamond mining, you have deep mines in South Africa where [there is] the human toll of the diamond miners that are working under very severe and hazardous conditions. Now it's just a part of our modern-day society, but it’s still a bit different from if you're going into a pristine cave and completely destroying it to collect minerals from the cave structure.

Clearly you might think of the crystal industry like any economic industry. When you get a large demand for something, whatever the purpose of that is, whether it's for jewelry or for some health benefit to the human psyche, [there is a need for supply]. 

The Daily: Is there any way that one could possibly mitigate the harm that is being caused by this industry?

Swanson: There should be some regulation at the state or federal level of what things you would allow or disallow. It's a mining operation and it's a resource that adds to our economy, and if people believe that crystals are going to help them then it's no different than any other industry in that sense. As a society, [we] need to decide what we're willing to protect. Within the United States, we've protected a lot of our very beautiful sites and it's the same thing in Southeast China, but it's usually with smaller state-level issues when the regulations may not be as intense. 

Reach reporter Amber Hsu at Twitter: @ambrhsu

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