A new study reports that repeated exposure to common pesticides may influence the chance of developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a debilitating and fatal condition.
Lou Gehrig’s disease took that name from the famed baseball player whose career was ended by ALS. ALS is a progressive and ultimately fatal disease that destroys communication between the brain, spinal cord, and muscles, Medical Daily reports. Victims eventually lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement. This leads to the inability to speak, eat, move, and breathe, typically within three to five years of diagnosis. Current treatments cannot halt or reverse the damage. Patients have few treatment options to maintain their quality of life.
A team of researchers from the University of Michigan investigated potential environmental factors surrounding the risk for ALS. Between 2011 and 2014, the researchers recruited 156 patients with ALS and 128 patients without ALS (the control group). All the participants lived in Michigan. Each participant provided blood samples and completed a survey detailing their exposure to pesticides. Those who reported higher pesticide exposure had a “significant” increased risk of ALS compared to those who did not. The findings were published in JAMA Neurology,
The at-risk participants had blood concentrations with elevated levels of environmental pollutants, including organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and brominated flame retardants (BRFs). The traces of pesticides found in the subjects’ blood samples are chemicals used to protect crops and livestock from farming pathogens and insects that can damage or destroy them, Medical Daily reports.
OCPs are broken down into five different chemical groups, one being the once widely used DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1970s after their link to numerous health risks in both humans and animals was discovered.
In addition, according to the Center for Environmental Research & Children’s Health, PCBs, which are also linked to an increased risk of cancer, last for a very long time in the human body, accumulating in fat and oftentimes found in breast milk. A 2003 study in Environmental International warns that BRFs, which are a mixture of industrial chemicals used to make products less flammable, are potential carcinogens that also alter reproductive organs, liver, and thyroid hormones.
Researchers are not sure how the chemicals trigger ALS, if in fact they do. But with about 6,400 Americans diagnosed with ALS each year, further research into such a link is urgently needed.
The authors of the JAMA Neurology article plan to look further into the risk factors of exposure to pesticides, including different chemicals and how they affect ALS patients on a cellular level. The authors conclude, “Finally, as environmental factors that affect the susceptibility, triggering and progression of ALS remain largely unknown, future studies are needed to evaluate trends in exposure measurements, assess newer chemicals, consider mechanisms, and assess variations.”