In a new study, researchers found that higher blood levels of toxic chemicals found in pesticides, nonstick cookware, and fire retardants are linked to an increased risk for celiac disease.
The research was led by NYU Grossman School of Medicine scientists.
People with celiac disease can have severe gut reactions, including diarrhea and bloating, to foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
The only treatment is a gluten-free diet, with no bread, pasta, or cake.
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.
The team wanted to know 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.
In the study, they found that children and young adults with high blood levels of pesticides—and with high levels of pesticide-related chemicals called dichlorodiphenyldichlorethylenes (DDEs)—were twice as likely to be newly diagnosed with celiac disease as those without high levels.
The study also found 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 5-9 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.
The team says further studies are needed to demonstrate that these toxic chemicals are a direct cause of celiac disease.
But they note that all are known to disrupt animal and human hormone levels, which are key to controlling both sexual development and immune defenses against infection.
This study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and celiac disease.
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 lead author of the study is doctoral student Abigail Gaylord, MPH.
The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.
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