News Roundup: Arsenic Linked to Diabetes, Stress Worsens Allergies, and More


Arsenic linked to risk of type 2 diabetes in the U.S.
Even low levels of arsenic, possibly from drinking water, may be linked to a higher risk of
type 2 diabetes in the United States, Johns Hopkins University researchers report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (High levels of exposure in other countries, such as Taiwan, Bangladesh, and Mexico, have long been thought to increase diabetes risk.) In the new study of 788 Americans exposed to arsenic, the top 20% with the highest exposure to arsenic—which was measured in urine—had a 3.6-fold higher type 2–diabetes risk than the 20% with the lowest amount of exposure. The median arsenic exposure in the study (half of participants were above and half were below) was roughly three times lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s reference dose, according to an editorial. Arsenic is found in natural mineral deposits in some parts of the United States, and can be found in water, food, and the air, although the study didn't determine the specific source. The researchers estimate that about 13 million people in the United States live in areas with drinking-water arsenic levels above the EPA’s recommended limit of 10 micrograms per liter, and levels tend to be higher in the West, Midwest, and Northeast.

Stress makes allergies worse and longer-lasting
Here’s one more thing to stress about. Your allergies may be worse when you’re under stress, Reutersreports. Ohio State University researchers stressed out allergy sufferers in a variety of inventive ways, including asking them to solve tricky math problems in front of eagle-eyed evaluators. The moderately stressed study subjects developed allergy-induced welts that were 75% larger than those induced after a low-stress scenario (such as reading a magazine). A high-stress scenario caused welts twice as big. Even worse, the allergy-induced wheals were more likely to linger 24 hours after a highly stressful event than after a low-stress event. Unfortunately, these kinds of delayed allergic reactions tend to be most resistant to treatment with antihistamines, the authors say. If it's not already painfully obvious, they suggest you keep stress to a minimum during allergy season.

Two deaths in patients using the diabetes drug Byetta
Six people in the United States who used the injectable diabetes drug Byetta (exenatide) have developed hemorrhagic or necrotizing pancreatitis, and two of the patients have died, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We’ve written quite a bit about Byetta, including the new drug’s benefits (it causes weight loss in some patients) and risks, which may include acute pancreatitis. The condition occurs when the gland, which makes digestive enzymes, begins to digest itself. (Watch a video of a patient describing her acute pancreatitis symptoms, which include abdominal pain and occasional vomiting.) Isolated cases don’t prove that the drug is responsible. However, expect stronger warnings on Byetta’s label in the near future, the FDA says.

Birth control pills may skew sexy-smell perception
Good looks count in the dating game, but smell is crucial too. Now University of Liverpool researchers have made a startling discovery: Although birth control pills may have revolutionized modern romance, they could be throwing a wrench into the works of a primordial one—human scent. It's thought that a person's distinctive odor is due in part to immune system genes, which enhance genetic diversity by causing immuno-opposites to attract. But when women rated the odors of men for "sexiness," women using birth control pills tended to shift away from evolutionary destiny and toward genetically similar men. There are downsides to this skew: Genetic similarity in couples can lead to fertility problems, and even to the breakdown of relationships, write the authors in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Seems a guy who smelled sexy under the influence of the Pill may turn out later to just plain smell.

Born during a recession, die of cardiovascular disease?
If you procreate during financially lean times, can you doom a child to cardiovascular problems later in life? Maybe. It seems that people born during an economic recession live an average of 15 months less than those born during eras of excess, mostly due to cardiovascular problems, according to a recent study from the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany. The researchers analyzed data on Danish twins born in the early 1900s, and found that the twins' health outcomes were similar later in life (dying younger, of predominantly cardiovascular causes) than if they were born during financially healthier times. The authors speculate that during a recession, suboptimal nutrition and health infrastructure, as well as stressed parents, may affect their offspring's health. It's not clear if 2008's worldwide recession will bear bad fruit down the road; as the authors helpfully point out, "We need another 80 years to know this for sure." In the meantime, it seems we have a new reason for kids to resent their moms, dads, presidents, and prime ministers.

FDA says plastic baby bottles are safe—again
The Food and Drug Administration has weighed in yet again on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), a controversial chemical found in hard plastic, including baby bottles, water bottles, and the linings of cans. The federal agency says the chemical, which will be discussed by a panel of experts in September, is safe—a position it's stuck with through the years. And the announcement will likely do little to quell the debate. The FDA relies on industry-funded data, but environmentalists don’t trust the research. Many comments at the Wall Street Journal’s health blog get to the heart of the matter—trust. “Why would anyone trust the FDA anymore?” is one of the milder ones.