Air Pollution, Diabetes Linked in Children in New Study

Latino children living in areas with more air pollution have a greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to new research from the University of Southern California. Rates of Type 2 are increasing in children, as in adults, with more than 20,000 Americans under the age of 20 now living with the condition.

Previous studies have linked air pollution with an increased risk of obesity, inflammation, and diabetes. To evaluate the effects of air pollution in children at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, researchers tracked air quality in Los Angeles along with the health of 314 resident Latino children ages 8–15 with overweight and obesity for an average of 3.5 years. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the children lived in neighborhoods with excess nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles of air pollution produce by cars and power plants.

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The researchers discovered that, by the time the children turned 18, the insulin-producing beta cells of their pancreases were 13% less efficient than normal, with the participants having nearly 27% higher blood insulin levels after a 12-hour fast and 36% more insulin than normal during a 2-hour glucose test. The beta cells that were still functioning were working harder to compensate for damaged cells, leading to burn out and putting the children at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. The investigators adjusted for body fat percentage and socioeconomic status and found that, in some cases, the effects of long-term exposure to air pollution were more significant for Type 2 diabetes risk than a 5% gain in body weight. Although none of the participants developed Type 2 during the study period, many were classified as having prediabetes and showed signs they would eventually develop Type 2 diabetes.

“Diabetes is occurring in epidemic proportion in the U.S. and the developed world,” notes senior study author Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD. “It has been the conventional wisdom that this increase in diabetes is the result of an uptick in obesity due to sedentary lifespans and calorie-dense diets. Our study shows air pollution also contributes to Type 2 diabetes risk.”

How can you reduce the health risks of air pollution? According to lead study author Tanya Alderete, PhD, “It’s important to consider the factors that you can control — for example, being aware that morning and evening commute times might not be the best time to go for a run. Change up your schedule so that you’re not engaging in strenuous activity near sources of pollutants or during peak hours.”

The study wasn’t designed to find cause and effect and, according to the researchers, the findings can only be generalized to Latino children with overweight and obesity who are mostly of a lower socioeconomic status. Future studies should include participants who do not have overweight or obesity and should include data on diet and physical activity.

For more information, see the University of Southern California press release “Air Pollution Linked to Heightened Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Obese Latino Children” or the study’s abstract in the journal Diabetes. And to learn more about Type 2 diabetes in children, see the article “Kids Get Type 2, Too” by certified diabetes educator Amy Campbell.

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