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Is it something in the water?

The correlation between water contaminants and pediatric diabetes


By Michelle Osmond

Researchers in the Faculty of Medicine have linked water contaminants to type 1 diabetes in children.

More specifically, they’ve found a correlation between higher concentrations of arsenic and fluoride in public drinking water in the province and the disease.

Faculty of Medicine, health, research
Newfoundland and Labrador has the second highest incidence rate of type 1 diabetes mellitus in the world.

Newfoundland and Labrador has the second highest incidence rate of type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) in the world after Finland.

From 2007-10, that number was 49.9 per 100,000 children. For children aged 5-9, the most common age group affected in the province, that incidence was 59.1 per 100,000.

For this study, the researchers analyzed the incidence rates of type 1 diabetes in 240 communities with a single public water supply.

Environmental triggers

Dr. Roger Chafe, associate professor of pediatrics, and director, Janeway Pediatric Research Unit, is the lead author on the study.

“It is suspected that environmental triggers play a role in the cause of type 1 diabetes,” he said.

“Research conducted in other countries has found some associations between type 1 and components in water. Given our high rates of type 1 diabetes and the availability of reliable data on water quality across the province, there was a great opportunity to study the connection for our population.”

What they found was that the provincial incidence of type 1 diabetes was 51.7 per 100 000 (0-14 year age group) for the period studied. They conducted three different analyses to examine the correlation.

The researchers also found that concentrations of some components, such as barium and nickel, in drinking water were associated with lower incidence of type 1 diabetes.

Well water vs. public supply

Other researchers in the study were Dr. Leigh Anne Allwood Newhook, Discipline of Pediatrics; Dr. Atanu Sarkar, Community Health and Humanities; and Dr. Rana Aslanov, Alex Comeau and Peter Gregory, all from the Janeway Pediatric Research Unit.

“Several small rural communities, dependent on their own private wells, have been shown to have very high levels of arsenic.” — Dr. Atanu Sarkar

Dr. Sarkar notes that the study is especially relevant to Newfoundland and Labrador since there are several areas that have localized elevations of arsenic or “hot spots” with more than 10 micrograms per litre in drinking water sources, which is the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guideline value.

“This is particularly true for the risks of arsenic exposure among households drinking well water where there is often a lack of monitoring as compared to the households relying on public water sources,” Dr. Sarkar said.

“Several small rural communities, dependent on their own private wells, have been shown to have very high levels of arsenic. The findings of this current research may have significant implications for public health policy and further research.”

What can be done?

The researchers propose some possible preventative measures, including the regular monitoring of water and the removal of contaminants, if present; identifying high-risk areas based on water quality data and disease surveillance; and physician awareness of the link between water contamination and T1DM.

The study was funded by the Harris Centre (RBC Water Research and Outreach Fund) and the Janeway Hospital Research Foundation. Their findings were recently published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care.

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