It's widely accepted that the cause of diabetes is a mix of "nature and nurture," i.e. both genetic and environmental factors. Genes have been identified that seem to predict the occurrence of diabetes, but genetics alone are not enough to show who will get diabetes and who won't. Some families can have multiple children with diabetes, while others only have one diagnosis in several generations. It seems something in the environment also triggers diabetes, but the how has never been clearly identified.
Next week, the National Toxicology Program, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is holding a workshop on Jan. 11-13 to discuss the possibility of environmental chemicals contributing to the rising incidences of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes around the world. Participants will discuss current research and where additional attention is needed. Chemicals up for discussion include arsenic and cadmium, PCBs, DDT/DDE, other organohalogens, bisphenol A, phthalates, and organotins. I can't even pronounce half of them, but they do not sound like something I want around me and my kids!
I was actually notified about the workshop by Sarah Howard, a woman with diabetes who also is mom to a son with diabetes. Sarah became interested in environmental justice and health while in graduate school in the 1990s, and later worked in on projects involving lead poisoning, pollution prevention and environmental health. Sarah's interest in environmental health got personal when, after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during her pregnancy, her second son was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as well as food allergies. Sarah started combing through articles on toxicology published on PubMed (the NIH's database of biomedical literature). Over the next two years, she says she read hundreds and hundreds of studies.
"I looked for anything related to type 1 diabetes development, as well as toxicological studies of contaminants and their effects, even if not specific to type 1," Sarah says. "I tried to get an idea of the general direction of research and so forth."
Although her research is a one-woman show, review-of-the-literature style, rather than a full clinical study, Sarah has published her own list of "recommendations" for the prevention of type 1 diabetes on her website Diabetes and the Environment, with a heavy disclaimer that nothing has actually been proven to prevent diabetes. Sarah writes, "I think environmental contaminants could contribute to the increasing incidence of type 1 diabetes. But do they? We don't know yet."
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The fact is that toxic chemicals are now being blamed for everything under the sun — from autism to ADHD to asthma — and now diabetes is being added to the list. Very small amounts of BPA, a chemical found in plastics, was shown to cause an increase in insulin production, leading to insulin resistance and pre-diabetes. What other chemicals could adversely affect the way our body works? Studies have been done on whether other potential environmental factors, such as viruses, diet (like the breastmilk theory) or exposure or underexposure to things like Vitamin D could cause diabetes, but there are have been very few studies done on actual chemical toxins.
After doing her own research, Sarah says, "I don't think most (medical) researchers are aware of the current research around toxic chemicals, or how to test for them. It's also expensive to do so, and they may not know what to test for."
Sarah will be attending the workshop next week, and you can view the material too. Although the event is already closed to new registrations, the slide presentations will be posted on the web soon afterwards. We'll add the link here asap. Otherwise, you can also ping the organizers directly at this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.