Children and young adults with high blood levels of pesticides—and with high levels of pesticide-related chemicals called dichlorodiphenyldichlorethylenes—were twice as likely to receive a new diagnosis of celiac disease than those without high levels, report researchers.
People with the immune disorder have severe gut reactions, including diarrhea and bloating, to foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, according to researchers who led the study. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet, says lead investigator Abigail Gaylord, a doctoral student at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University.
The study also shows that gender differences existed for celiac disease related to toxic exposures. For females, who make up the majority of celiac cases, higher-than-normal pesticide exposure meant they were at least eight times more likely to become gluten intolerant. Young females with elevated levels of nonstick chemicals, known as perflouoroalkyls, or PFAs, including products like Teflon, were five to nine times more likely to have celiac disease.
Young males, on the other hand, were twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease if they had elevated blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.
Study co-investigator and health epidemiologist Leonardo Trasande, a professor at NYU Langone, says further studies are necessary to demonstrate that these toxic chemicals are a direct cause of celiac disease. But he notes that all are known to disrupt animal and human hormone levels, which are key to controlling both sexual development and immune defenses against infection.
Previous research has suggested that the origins of celiac disease, which afflicts one in 100 adults worldwide, were largely genetic and passed down from parents to offspring. Trasande, who also serves as chief of environmental pediatrics in the pediatrics department, and his colleagues wanted to investigate whether a link existed between environmental exposure to toxins and risk for a particular immune disorder directly affected by hormone levels, such as celiac disease.
“Our study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and celiac disease,” says senior study investigator Jeremiah Levine, a pediatric gastroenterologist.
“These results also raise the question of whether there are potential links between these chemicals and other autoimmune bowel diseases, which all warrant close monitoring and further study,” says Levine, a professor in the pediatrics department.
Trasande says that if further studies show similar connections, such results could serve as evidence that the basis or underlying cause for many of these autoimmune disorders may not just be genetic, but also environmental.
For the study, researchers analyzed levels of toxic chemicals in the blood of 30 children and young adults, ages 3 to 21, who were newly diagnosed with celiac disease. The researchers compared the test results with those from 60 other young people of similar age, gender, and race. People with genes HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 are known to be at greater risk of being diagnosed with celiac disease. Other symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, fatigue, and anemia.
The research appears in the journal Environmental Research. The KiDS of NYU Langone provided funding for the work.