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A new study found exposure to pesticides may increase risk of developing celiac disease. Getty Images
  • For this study, researchers examined levels of toxic chemicals in the blood of 30 children and young adults recently diagnosed with celiac disease.
  • The NYU team discovered that children and young adults who have high levels of pesticides and pesticide-related chemicals had double the chance of being diagnosed with celiac disease.
  • For females, higher-than-normal pesticide exposure meant they were at least eight times more likely to become gluten intolerant.

New York University (NYU) Langone researchers find that elevated levels of toxic chemicals from pesticides, nonstick cookware, and fire retardants are associated with an increased risk of developing celiac disease.

“Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestines,” Dr. Patrick Fratellone, RH FIM, an integrative physician and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine, told Healthline.

For this study published May 11 in the journal Environmental Research, researchers examined levels of toxic chemicals in the blood of 30 children and young adults, from 3 to 21 years old, and recently diagnosed with celiac disease at NYU Langone Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.

Chemical levels were compared to those of 60 other participants of similar age, gender, and race without celiac disease.

The NYU team discovered that children and young adults who have high levels of pesticides and other chemicals called dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylenes (DDEs) had double the chance of being diagnosed with celiac disease than those who didn’t.

The study also found that gender plays a role in how chemicals influence celiac risk.

For females, higher-than-normal pesticide exposure meant they were at least eight times more likely to become gluten intolerant.

But elevated levels of nonstick chemicals (perfluoroalkyls, or PFAs), including products like Teflon, were up to nine times more likely to have celiac disease.

On the other hand, young males with elevated blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were only twice as likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

The endocrine system, also called the hormone system, is made up of glands located throughout the body.

“There’s emerging science that certain chemicals disrupt immune function, and not just hormonal function,” said study co-investigator and health epidemiologist Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MPP, professor of pediatrics at NYU Langone.

He added there’s already some “suggestive evidence” that endocrine-disrupting chemicals contribute to celiac disease and are “associated with other diseases, like Crohn’s disease.”

Trasande emphasized “there’s a lot of cross-talk between the endocrine system and the immune system,” in the context of celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), persistent organic pollutants (POPs) include thousands of synthetic chemicals widely used during the industrial production boom after the Second World War.

“Although many POPs have been phased out of use, these chemicals remain in the environment, as they are resistant to degradation and tend to accumulate in animal and human tissue,” the study authors wrote.

Some well-known POPs include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the pesticide DDT, and dioxins — which come from chlorine bleaching of paper pulp, the manufacturing of some herbicides and pesticides, and other industrial processes.

“DDE is a metabolite of the long-standing pesticide DDT, which of course has been banned, except for some use in malaria prevention in parts of Africa,” said Trasande. “But there’s legacy contamination, such that we weren’t surprised to detect many of the metabolites [in study participants].”

He emphasized that there are steps we can take to reduce our exposure to these chemicals.

People can do things like “simply clearing the air by opening windows every day, and using a wet mop to sop up persistent pollutants that can accumulate in dust.”

Trasande asserted that this study adds to others raising concerns about nonstick chemicals.

One simple way to cut down on exposure to these chemicals is to switch out Teflon pans for cast-iron pans, which if properly seasoned can result in a nonstick like surface without these chemicals.

This isn’t the first study to find a link between commonly used chemicals and celiac disease.

A 2013 study published in the journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology concluded that glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides like Roundup, is the most important causal factor in celiac disease.

But Trasande’s study is the first to measure an association between chemical exposure and the condition.

“Our study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and celiac disease,” said senior study investigator and pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Jeremiah Levine in a statement. “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.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) list symptoms of celiac disease that include:

  • abdominal pain
  • chronic diarrhea
  • constipation
  • gas
  • nausea

However, some people with the disease may not have symptoms at all. According to the NIH, celiac disease can also prevent children from absorbing nutrients, which may lead to issues like slowed growth, weight loss, damaged tooth enamel, and delayed puberty.

“It affects 1 in 100 individuals,” said Fratellone. “These individuals are genetically predisposed, and it is estimated that there are over 2 million Americans who are undiagnosed and at risk for long-term complications,”

Fratellone explained that gluten is an “umbrella name” for proteins known as prolamins, which are primarily made up of glutenin and gliadin. This substance is found in grains that include wheat, rye, and barley.

“The best way to treat a celiac patient is to educate him or her on avoiding wheat gluten. There are also blood tests to determine if you have a gluten allergy or have celiac disease,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic cautions that before starting a gluten-free diet, you should be tested for celiac disease first — because eliminating gluten could make the tests appear normal.

There are two blood tests available to diagnose it: serology testing, which looks for certain antibodies in your blood, and genetic testing. “Some gastroenterologists believe you must have a biopsy. I do recommend food allergy testing,” said Fratellone.

If you’re gluten intolerant, the Mayo Clinic advises you to avoid all foods and drinks containing wheat, rye, barley, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), and in some cases, oats, if there is a chance they were contaminated during production with gluten-containing grains.

For the first time, a study has measured the association between exposure to toxic chemicals, like pesticides and industrial chemicals, and celiac disease risk.

Researchers say that the findings raise the question of whether there are potential links between these chemicals and other autoimmune bowel diseases.

Celiac disease can lead to serious health issues in children, but experts say it’s important to get tested before starting a gluten-free diet.

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