Lupus and Pesticides
By A. G. Moore
This is the first of a series of blogs I will post on different environmental exposures and their associations with SLE. While there will always be controversy, particularly between health researchers and industry advocates, about the levels of exposure that are harmful, all I can do as a non-scientist is report what the research indicates. Each of us has to take the information and decide if it has relevance in our lives.
There are idiosyncratic responses to every kind of environmental exposure; this means that you never know how something will affect you, individually. The best each of us can do is make informed decisions about the risks and benefits of any substance we allow into our personal space.
The substance under consideration today is HCH, which is used commercially as a pesticide on produce and by the retail consumer as a lice remedy. Lindane, as the louse formulation is known, has certain product advisories printed on the label. Although these warnings can be daunting in themselves (potential for seizures and other neurological events, for example) what is not mentioned is the possible exacerbation of SLE. According to an NIH document (Alterations in T-lymphocyte sub-set profiles and cytokine secretion by PBMC of systemic lupus erythematosus patients upon in vitro exposure to organochlorine pesticides), “Chronic exposure to organochlorine pesticides (OCP) has been suspected of causing immunoregulatory abnormalities that eventually lead to development and progression of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but the role of these non-genetic stimuli has remained poorly understood.”
The “organochlorine pesticides” referenced in the NIH article include HCH and DDT. Important for us to note in the NIH report are the words “chronic, suspected and poorly understood”. Also essential for us to take note of is the phrase “non-genetic stimuli”. That means this effect, if legitimate, isn’t a legacy of our ancestors or our gene pool. It’s something that definitely happened to us after we were born. That’s good news.
Researchers have always suspected that lupus was linked to a genetic predisposition yet was not determined by that predisposition. Studies of identical twins pretty much prove this. While there is a high probability that if one twin has lupus the other will also, many cases exist where there is an affected twin and one that is not affected.
So scientists, and we, can look to the environment to understand why we may have lupus. What happened to bring on the lupus? If there are antagonists in the environment, then maybe we can try to remove these. If HCH is a lupus antagonist, then that is something we should know and when a doctor recommends that we use it to rid ourselves of a lice infestation, maybe we should think long and hard about this and look to another remedy.
Insecticides have always been a quick and convenient way of dealing with insect infestations. While these products may still have their place, perhaps we should be certain that they are a last and unavoidable line of defense.
I know I will. I cannot change my past. I grew up in an agricultural community where crops were regularly “dusted”. I had children whom I treated with preparations to rid them of lice. I used these preparations myself as a prophylactic against lice during these episodes. My dogs had fleas; I treated the house and the animals with insecticides.
I don’t know if any of this contributed to my experience with lupus. I do know that in the future I will spend more time and energy looking for alternatives to what in the past seemed like an efficient solution to a pesky problem.