An increasing number of excellent studies have come out in recent years demonstrating the alarming connection between environmental pollutants and disease. For obvious reasons, it is not possible to conduct interventional studies of environmental pollutants on humans; rather, these are association studies (epidemiological studies) or animal studies.
“But there continues to be little interest in this type of research. We need better opportunities to conduct more and bigger studies, and we need animal studies that can demonstrate a causal relationship and explain the underlying mechanisms. We can now show that a focus on this area could also be profitable,” says Monica Lind, Associate Professor of Environmental Medicine at the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Uppsala University Hospital.
Several research groups around the world, including the one led by Monica Lind and Lars Lind at Uppsala University, have shown that high levels of various types of environmental pollutants in the blood, such as PCBs or persistent insecticides, are related to a high risk of developing diabetes.
Together with American environmental researcher Leonardo Trasande, New York University, the research group has now made cost calculations based on the so-called PIVUS study, which has studied numerous environmental pollutants in around 1,000 elderly individuals in Uppsala, as well as the incidence of diabetes in the group.
The finding shows that together, high levels of PCBs, persistent insecticides, phthalates (softeners in plastics and cosmetics/skincare products) and fluorinated substances (including fire foam and water-repellent materials) account for 13 percent of diabetes incidence. This can be compared with obesity, the most common risk factor for diabetes, which accounts for 40 percent.
“According to our calculations, a 25 percent decrease in these environmental pollutants could reduce diabetes incidence in Europe by around 150,000 individuals and lead to annual healthcare cost savings of SEK 45 billion,” says Lars Lind, professor of medicine at the Department of Medical Sciences, Uppsala University.
The calculations are based on the percentage of risk that can account for a case of diabetes and public estimates of annual care costs for a chronic disease like diabetes.
“As always in health economics, the calculations are complicated and include several uncertainty factors, but it is clear that environmental pollutants lead to high healthcare costs. Given that we’ve seen that environmental pollutants are associated with several other diseases in addition to diabetes, reducing these pollutants could lead to major healthcare savings in the long term,” says Monica Lind.