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Toxins and Type 2

Quinn Phillips

January 26, 2011

In one of our first Diabetes Flashpoints posts more than two years ago, we published an interview that explored the link between toxins and autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes. That interview promoted a straightforward theory with widespread scientific acceptance: Toxins and other triggers can overload the immune system, leading it to make mistakes in the form of an autoimmune disease, when it attacks the body’s own healthy cells. Yet as the interview also noted, a growing body of evidence is linking toxins with Type 2 diabetes.

To explore this connection, the National Toxicology Program — a US government agency — convened a committee to evaluate existing studies on diabetes and various chemicals, including those found in pesticides, plastics, and cigarette smoke. The committee led a workshop January 11-13 in Raleigh, North Carolina, in which scientists discussed their findings. According to a Reuters article on the workshop, the scientists concluded that in many cases, a strong connection exists between chemicals and Type 2 diabetes as well as obesity. One of the strongest connections, they found, was between maternal smoking during pregnancy and the child’s risk later on of developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Counterintuitively, in these cases low birth weight often indicates a later tendency toward obesity and diabetes. Other chemicals explored by the committee include the plastic BPA, used in some drinking bottles but increasingly out of favor; arsenic and other metals; and organic pesticides and related chemicals, which are widely used in conventional (nonorganic) agriculture.

Yet while the scientists conclude that there is strong biological evidence of connections to diabetes from these chemicals, they cannot estimate how many people are affected as a result. Many studies reviewed as part of the workshop involved measuring the responses of chemical exposure in animals. Since no study intentionally exposing humans to toxins could ever be approved, it is not fully known how exposure in humans translates into clinical outcomes. Furthermore, it is often very difficult to measure chemical exposure in the real world, which would be necessary to conclude how much blame chemicals deserve for current rates of obesity and diabetes.

Do you suspect that toxins played a role in the development of your diabetes? Have you taken steps to minimize your exposure to certain chemicals? How should government agencies decide how to regulate potentially harmful chemicals when their full effect on human health is unknown? Leave a comment below!



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