Could certain chemicals trigger coeliac disease?

  • Coeliac disease is an immune disorder where people can't tolerate foods containing gluten
  • Researchers say that toxic chemicals in a range of products are associated with increased risk of the disorder
  • Gender appears to be an important factor in the link between the chemicals and the disorder

Toxic chemicals in a wide range of products are associated with an increased risk of coeliac disease in children and young adults, researchers say.

People with celiac disease – an immune disorder – can't tolerate foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

New York University researchers analysed the blood of 30 children and young adults newly diagnosed with coeliac disease and compared results with those from 60 other young people. The investigators found that elevated levels of toxic chemicals found in pesticides, nonstick cookware and fire retardants were linked to a higher risk of having coeliac disease.

"Our study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and coeliac disease," said senior study investigator and paediatric gastroenterologist Dr Jeremiah Levine.

Gender an important factor

"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," Levine added in a university news release.

In the study, children and young adults with high blood levels of pesticide-related chemicals called dichlorodiphenyldichlorethylenes (DDEs) were twice as likely to be newly diagnosed with coeliac disease as those without such levels.

Gender was an important factor in the link between toxic chemicals and risk of coeliac disease.

Females – who account for the majority of coeliac patients – with higher-than-normal pesticide exposure were at least eight times more likely to have coeliac disease.

Females with elevated levels of nonstick chemicals called perfluoroalkyls (PFAs), which are found in products like Teflon, were five to nine times more likely to have coeliac disease.

Only an association

Males were twice as likely to have coeliac disease if they had elevated blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), according to the study.

The findings were published online in May in the journal Environmental Research.

Further research is needed to determine if these toxic chemicals are a direct cause of coeliac disease since this study only showed an association, said study co-investigator and health epidemiologist Dr Leonardo Trasande.

He noted that all the chemicals are known to disrupt animal and human hormone levels, which are crucial in sexual development and immune system function.

Image credit: Getty Images

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
27% - 9950 votes
73% - 26272 votes