Toxic Chemical Exposure Linked to Celiac in New Study

Many mixed breads and rolls shot from above.

New York, NY—Elevated blood levels of toxic chemicals found in pesticides, nonstick cookware, and fire retardants have been tied to an increased risk for celiac disease in young people, according to new research from NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone Health.

Researchers analyzed levels of toxic chemicals in the blood of 30 children and young adults, ages 3 to 21, who were newly diagnosed with celiac disease. Test results were compared with those from 60 other young people of similar age, gender, and race.

The Langone team found that children and young adults with high blood levels of pesticides—and of pesticide-related chemicals called dichlorodiphenyldichlorethylenes (DDEs)—were twice as likely to be newly diagnosed with celiac disease as those without high levels.

There were also gender differences. Women with higher-than-normal pesticide exposure were eight times more likely to be diagnosed with celiac; young women with elevated levels of nonstick chemicals—known as perflouoroalkyls, or PFAs—were five to nine times more likely to have celiac disease. Men, on the other hand, were twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease if they had elevated blood levels of fire-retardant chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

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All of these chemicals are known to disrupt animal and human hormone levels, which are key to controlling both sexual development and immune defenses against infection, according to study co-investigator and health epidemiologist Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, the Jim G. Hendrick, MD Professor at NYU Langone. Further studies, however, are needed to demonstrate that these chemicals are a direct cause of celiac disease, he noted in a press release.

Previous research has suggested that celiac disease is largely genetic; however, Trasande and his colleagues at the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone wanted to investigate 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.

“Our study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and celiac disease,” says senior study investigator and pediatric gastroenterologist Jeremiah Levine, MD, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone. “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.”

Trasande says that if further studies show similar findings, the argument could be made that many autoimmune disorders are not only genetic, but also environmental.