Exposure to environmental chemicals, even in the womb, can cause diabetes

Regulation of phthalates in plastics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the air is more strict in the European Union than in the US, and in many cases, even more so than it is in Israel.

December 18, 2017 16:56
2 minute read.
A person recieves a test for diabetes, illustrative

A person recieves a test for diabetes, illustrative. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Fetal exposure to environmental chemicals, including those found in plastics and in air pollution, can cause type 2 diabetes when the child reaches adulthood, according to worrisome new studies.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a veteran toxicologist and director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), revealed this information on Monday at the 10th annual conference of the Environmental and Health Fund (EHF) held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

The mission of the NIEHS is to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives. In the area of children’s environmental health, NIEHS supports a number of local and international research projects that are examining the effects on children’s health of air pollution, metals, pesticides and other environmental contaminants.

Regulation of phthalates in plastics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the air is more strict in the European Union than in the US, and in many cases, even more so than it is in Israel. Speakers at the conference from government and non-governmental organizations agreed that setting official standards generally takes a long time because such standards must be approved by the consensus of numerous bodies. Also, political considerations, such as the need to raise competition and lower consumer prices, may take precedence over health concerns, even regarding children.

Birnbaum, who has been the EHF’s adviser since 2011, visits Israel frequently and is the first toxicologist to head the US institute. She noted that BPA exposure in fetuses – and even in their parents before their fetus is conceived – has been shown to cause weight gain, along with more and larger fat cells in adults. BPA can thus cause alterations in glucose metabolism and more cases of type 2 diabetes.

Mice exposed to BPA are hungrier and want to be fed more often, said Birnbaum, as the chemicals can affect satiety centers in the brain. “They expend less energy and are less active when they are supposed to be at night.”

Prenatal exposure to PAHs, which come from tobacco smoke and other air pollution, is associated to obesity in childhood. The more your mother was exposed to PAHs, the more you are likely to be obese PAH comes from air pollution, especially from diesel fuel, continued Birnbaum. It can reduce children’s IQ and also make them overweight, which can result in diabetes. While she noted extremely bad air quality in India, where she visited only a few weeks ago, Birnbaum said parts of Israel have high levels of air pollution due to particulate matter from metals in sands as well as from vehicle traffic.

Even significant exposure to pesticides – which “don’t stay where they are but get into the soil, the groundwater, crops and house dust – can cause diabetes,” said Birnbaum. Certain artificial sweeteners used by dieters and diabetics may also cause poor glucose functioning.

A Health Page feature on the conference will appear on Sunday, December 31.

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