Environmental pollutants may be behind the development of type 1 diabetes

The environmental pollutants we consume are likely the reason some people develop type 1 diabetes. Even low levels of these pollutants can lead to cells producing less insulin, a new study from the University of Oslo reveals ( UiO).

About 400 children and teenagers are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year in Norway and the number of new cases in children and adolescents has doubled since the 1970s. Adults are also being diagnosed with the disease.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease characterized by destruction of beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The body’s own defense system makes the mistake of believing that these insulin-producing cells are harmful foreign cells that need to be destroyed.

What triggers the onset of type 1 diabetes remains unclear to scientists. Could it be hereditary? Environmental factors related to food, polluted drinking water or could it be due to viral infection?

Researchers found more environmental pollutants in the blood of children with type 1 diabetes

In collaboration with the University of Tromsø and several research teams in the United States, UiO scientists studied environmental pollutants in blood samples from American children and adolescents diagnosed with diabetes. type 1. These were compared to blood samples from a control group that did not have type 1 diabetes.

– We found that a greater proportion of people with type 1 diabetes had such pollutants in their blood. On average, they also had a higher concentration of several types of environmental pollutants, says Sophie E. Bresson, a doctoral student in the Department of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oslo’s Institute for Basic Medical Sciences.

To examine these results further, the researchers used beta cells from rats. The toxic substances were applied to these cells to find out what happened next.

– We found that the beta cells then produced much less insulin, even after only two days and with very low concentrations of environmental pollutants. When beta cells were exposed to pollutants for a long time, they died. We therefore believe that environmental pollutants play a role in triggering the onset of type 1 diabetes, Bresson concludes.

Bresson, Professor Jérôme Ruzzin and the research team recently published their findings in an article in the journal Environment International.

Environmental pollutants are a global threat to humanity

Several of the environmental pollutants studied by the research team, such as PCBs and pesticides, were banned 20 years ago by the Stockholm Convention. But these substances are found in food, plastics, paints, building materials, soil and water and only break down naturally to a small extent. They may also have been trapped by ice, and when the ice melts due to global warming, the pollutants are released.

In addition, a number of countries that have not signed the Convention continue to use these substances to prevent insects from attacking crops.

– We consume most environmental pollutants through the food we eat. Once these pollutants enter the body, there is unfortunately nothing we can do to eradicate them, says Bresson.

As part of the study, the researchers obtained blood samples from the United States. Could the level of environmental pollutants differ from that of Norway?

– We have no reason to believe that there are significant differences. But we need to know for sure, says Bresson.

Eat less meat and more lean fish

90% of the environmental pollutants we consume through food come from fish, meat and dairy products, explains Professor Jason Matthews from the Department of Nutrition at the University of Oslo.

Scientists point out that fatty fish such as herring, mackerel, halibut, salmon and trout contain more dioxins and dl-PCBs than lean fish fillets. Examples of lean fish are saithe, cod and haddock.

So what can we do to reduce the level of environmental pollutants in our food?

– Eating less meat can be a good start and choose lean fish. Ecologically grown foods will contain fewer pesticide trace elements since they are not sprayed, but they will still absorb pollutants via water and soil, reveals Matthews.


Journal reference:

Bresson, SE, et al. (2022) Associations between persistent organic pollutants and type 1 diabetes in young people. International Environment. doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107175.

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