Air Pollution Linked to Higher Diabetes Risk Among Kids

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Children who live in areas with high levels of pollution face a greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes due to pancreatic cell disruption, says a new study.

Researchers tracked the health outcomes of 314 Latino children in Los Angeles who are taking part in a 12-year study on diabetes risk, and they found that high levels of air pollution were tied to a 13 percent reduction in the efficiency of a child’s pancreatic cells.

Credit: Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Specifically, high levels of air pollution affected the kids’ pancreatic beta cells, which secrete insulin and help the body maintain correct blood sugar levels. The beta cells that were still working properly were essentially burning out from overuse, according to the study.

The researchers also found a link between pollution — characterized by high levels of nitrogen dioxide and other dirty particles in the environment — and weight trends.

Related: Health Report Says 30 Percent of Kids Have Two Sugary Drinks Daily

“Exposure to heightened air pollution during childhood increases the risk for Hispanic children to become obese and, independent of that, to also develop type 2 diabetes,” said study author Michael Goran, Co-Director of the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, in a statement.

“Poor air quality appears to be a catalyst for obesity and diabetes in children, but the conditions probably are forged via different pathways,” added Goran.

Nitrogen dioxide is primarily a product of vehicle emissions and other fuel-burning entities, such as power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

More Concern as Diabetes Numbers Are Spiking

About 30 million people, or roughly 9 percent of the population, have diabetes in the U.S., and the number of people with prediabetes is rising. The study adds a new threat to the list of lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to diabetes, note the researchers.

“Diabetes is occurring in epidemic proportion in the U.S. and the developed world,” said senior author Frank Gilliland. “It has been the conventional wisdom that this increase in diabetes is the result of an uptick in obesity due to sedentary lifespans and calorie-dense diets. Our study shows air pollution also contributes to type 2 diabetes risk.”

Los Angeles is known for its smog. Credit: Steven Buss/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Los Angeles ranks at or near the top on most pollution lists and has high rates of year-round particle pollution, according to the American Lung Society. “Air pollution is ubiquitous, especially in Los Angeles,” said study lead author Tanya Alderete.

The new study is the latest to examine the harmful effect of pollutants on the body. A recent study found that living near a highway caused a much higher risk of developing dementia.

Alderete recommends that people living in high-pollution areas adapt to their potentially harmful environments to help reduce the burden of contaminants.

Related: Living Near Highways May Increase Dementia Risk

“It’s important to consider the factors that you can control — for example, being aware that morning and evening commute times might not be the best time to go for a run,” advised Alderete. “Change up your schedule so that you’re not engaging in strenuous activity near sources of pollutants or during peak hours.”

California contains the top seven cities with the most year-round pollution, with Los Angeles ranking number-one in ozone levels.

Want some clean air? Move to Prescott, Ariz., or Farmington, N.M. — the two cities with the lowest levels of annual particle pollution.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.