Arsenic in drinking water: A piece of the diabetes puzzle?

Being exposed to arsenic over a prolonged period of time can increase the likelihood of diabetes, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.

Researchers from the University of Chicago, University of Albany, Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine and the University of Illinois at Chicago used male mouse models to understand how chronic arsenic exposure can interfere with the secretion of insulin in the pancreas and ultimately lead to diabetes.

The mice were subjected to sub-toxic levels of arsenic to replicate chronic exposure to arsenic-contaminated drinking water – a common occurrence around the world. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), arsenic contamination of potable groundwater is a global phenomenon, affecting nearly 140 million people in 50 countries.

The exposed mice were then compared with a control group. Both groups were then tested to understand their glucose metabolism and insulin secretion. The results indicated that mice exposed to arsenic had higher blood glucose levels because of reduced insulin secretion upon testing. When the amount of insulin is diminished, it affects glucose in the bloodstream – primarily because insulin is the hormone responsible for moving glucose to the tissues. This constant increase in blood glucose level will result in a diabetes diagnosis if left untreated.

Despite decreased insulin levels, researchers found no significant inflammation of the pancreas or change in the number of insulin-producing cells (beta cells) inside it. Any damage or stress made to the two are clear indicators of an increased risk.

Both Type 1 diabetes and arsenic contamination affect the amount of insulin in the blood; however, the study pointed out a key difference between the two. In Type 1 diabetes, insulin production is hindered because beta cells are destroyed. This is not the case with chronic arsenic exposure, where the beta-cell function of insulin secretion is affected. (Related: Arsenic May Be Linked to Increased Diabetes Risk.)

The researchers explained: “Arsenic induces glucose intolerance through a disruption of beta-cell function that alters normal stimulus-secretion coupling.”

Understanding how arsenic disrupts the process of insulin secretion is a key component to drum up methods in mitigating risk in the future. The study also suggests that arsenic-induced diabetes may be reversible if policies that reduce environmental exposure are put in place.

Fast facts about arsenic

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in small amounts in soil, plants, and water. It is heavily used in agriculture as a pesticide component and in industry, where it is used as an alloying agent for the production of glass, pigments, textiles, and adhesives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) point to industrial and agricultural pollution as the leading sources of arsenic contamination in potable groundwater.

Aside from groundwater, arsenic can also be ingested through fish, meat, poultry, and cereals that have been exposed to a contaminated water source.

When a person is constantly exposed to increased levels of arsenic in the environment, this may increase his risk of developing cancer, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Long-term arsenic exposure can affect both pregnant women and their infant. Aside from a risk of infant mortality, it also may affect their cognitive development, intelligence, and memory.

If you suspect your drinking water may be contaminated with arsenic, get in touch with your local health department for their recommended procedures.

If you want to learn more about inorganic arsenic and how it contaminates our water, go to today.

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