Diabetes and the Environment: Arsenic

Sarah Howard
Coordinator, CHE’s Diabetes – Obesity Spectrum Working Group

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission from her website: Diabetes and the Environment. See also CHE’s March 11th Partnership call: The Link Between Arsenic Exposure and Diabetes: A Review of the Current Research

Arsenic can be found naturally in drinking water. Millions of people worldwide rely on drinking water sources containing arsenic; in the U.S., about 13 million people live where arsenic levels in public drinking water supplies exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard (Navas-Acien et al. 2008). In 2001, the US EPA lowered the drinking water standard for arsenic from 50 µg/L to 10 µg/L (10 ppb) (EPA). Arsenic has also been found in food, such as rice and conventional chicken (Nachman et al. 2013).


High Levels of Exposure: Human Studies

Numerous studies of people exposed to arsenic from Taiwan, Bangladesh, Mexico, and Sweden have shown that high levels of arsenic are associated with diabetes (Navas-Acien et al. 2006; Coronado-Gonzalez 2007; Del Razo et al. 2011), including one long-term prospective study (Tseng et al. 2000). A meta-analysis of data from 17 published articles with over 2 million participants found that arsenic in drinking water and in urine was associated with diabetes, with a 13% increased risk for every 100 µg arsenic/L in drinking water (Wang et al. 2014).

A review of the evidence by a panel of experts convened by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) concluded that, “Existing human data provide limited to sufficient support for an association between arsenic and diabetes in populations with relatively high exposure levels (≥ 150 µg arsenic/L in drinking water)” (Maull et al. 2012). (In science-speak, that is actually pretty strong evidence).

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Prevention, Anyone?

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise Miller, MEdYesterday, I attended the memorial service of another friend who died from cancer. For most of his career (which was still very much in full gear), he went around the world working with governments and other agencies to reduce pollution from mining operations. He was dedicated to improving the health of those working in the mines, their families, and their communities. As I sat with his family and dear friends, I wondered whether the heavy metals and other toxins he had been exposed to on those trips might have contributed to the onset of his cancer. We’ll never know, but the World Cancer Report released last week by the World Health Organization stating that cancer rates are expected to increase by 57% worldwide in the next 20 years gave me pause.

The report indicated that within two decades cancer cases will rise from 14 million annually to 22 million, and deaths from cancer could rise from 8.6 million to 13 million annually. This could mean that health care systems around the world, many of which are already stretched to the point of breaking, will need significantly more resources to respond to this looming crisis. This could also mean that many, many more people will be attending funerals and memorial services and will carry the grief of losing loved ones too soon.

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