Health experts have known the statistics for years: black and Latino Americans are almost twice as likely to have diabetes as their white counterparts.
But a clear explanation for this racial disparity has remained a mystery until now.
A groundbreaking study published in Diabetes Care last month reveals that the higher prevalence of diabetes in minority populations around the US could have more to do with where people live than the color of their skin.
The report reexamined 50 years’ worth of scientific studies on toxic chemicals known as endocrine-disruptors. The authors found that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to those chemicals, which leak from gas plants and are found in in ozone pollution from cars.
According to a report released last week by the Clean Air Task Force and NAACP, “more than 1 million African-Americans live within a half mile of existing natural gas facilities, and the number is growing every year.”
The report also said ozone smog in many predominantly black neighborhoods is too high.
“Many social and cultural factors have combined to contribute to the fact that these groups have traditionally lived in degraded areas where toxic exposures are more likely to occur,” Daniel Ruiz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a co-author on the paper, said in a release. Ruiz tells Business Insider that he was surprised to find exposure to all kinds of toxic chemicals was higher in low-income neighborhoods and “black and brown communities,” from sources like traffic and industrial pollution, to toxic chemicals in consumer products like plastics.
The body’s endocrine system is involved in some of its most important daily tasks, including processing glucose from food and turning it into fuel. But when that system doesn’t function properly, blood sugar can spike, and the energy from food stays in the blood instead of being distributed to cells.
Some people are born with this issue — that’s type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can develop for a variety of reasons, including diet and exercise choices, but increasingly, evidence suggests it can also be due to exposure to air pollution, pesticides, certain plastics, and chemicals used in natural gas production.
Not only are black Americans 77% more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts, but the disease is also more likely to be debilitating for them. The American Diabetes Association says black people with diabetes are 2.6 times more likely to have end-stage renal disease than white people with the disease.
The recent study is part of a growing pile of evidence that racial health disparities may not be about skin color at all.
The study authors caution that more research is needed to know exactly how much pollution exposure contributes to diabetes in minority populations, but say this initial evidence should prove helpful to physicians and nurses.