Does mineral oil cause lupus? That’s not a question I, or anyone, can answer with absolute certainty. What I can say is this: mineral oil is a hydrocarbon and exposure to hydrocarbons has been associated with the development of lupus. Also, although mineral oil is a refined form of hydrocarbons, it retains elements that have been associated with the development of lupus autoantibodies.
According to the US EPA, hydrocarbons are “ubiquitous in the environment”. Something that distinguishes mineral oil from other hydrocarbons is that it is considered to be “safe” and is routinely added to personal care items, food wraps, medicines (such as vaccines)–and food.
Mineral oil is distilled from petroleum. “Food grade” mineral oil is a preferred food additive (preferred by some, anyway) because it is cheaper to use than the alternative, vegetable oil. Concern about mineral oil in the food supply is not confined to a small fringe of environmental extremists–the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been accumulating data on the risks posed by mineral oil and has described some of the potential hazards. What the Authority seeks to establish is an acceptable level below which these hazards might not be expected to occur. The hazards include: the potential to accumulate in human tissue, and the mutagenicity (ability to cause cancer, among other problems) of mineral oil.
In its 2012 advisory, the EFSA came to the conclusion that sources of mineral oil in the diet are many and that there might be “concern for some consumers: specifically, customers who are brand loyal or who often buy the same food product from the same shop“. EFSA’s concern is that the total amount consumed in a diet would exceed the level considered to be “safe” by the authority.
EFSA’s carefully worded concern about mineral oil is not an isolated opinion in the scientific community. Responsible research has demonstrated that hydrocarbons–mineral oil among them–have the ability to induce the production of a variety of autoantibodies. Different hydrocarbons elicit different types of autoantibodies, autoantibodies that have been implicated in the development of lupus.
As described by the Oxford Journal, “certain mineral oil components… induce lupus-related anti-nRNP/Sm or –Su autoantibodies in nonautoimmune mice”. While the Journal does not state that a direct causal relationship between mineral oil exposure and lupus has been proven, the Journal is comfortable making the broad statement that, “There is some evidence that mineral oil exposure may be associated with human disease”.
The Journal article goes on to describe specifically conditions that have been attributed to mineral oil exposure: cutaneous lipogranulomas; chronic pneumonitis and systemic lipogranulomas. Data on the potential hazards of mineral oil have been persuasive to experts in the UK. These experts called for a ban on mineral oil as a food additive. Consequently, use of the oil in the UK is more restricted than it is in the US and Canada
One of the problems with mineral oil studies is that most of these have used mice as test subjects; outcomes in mice studies are not reliable predictors of human outcomes. An objection to using the results of these studies is that the amount of mineral oil administered to the mice is many times that most humans would be exposed to. However, the Oxford Journal article points out that if an individual uses mineral oil as a daily supplement (which many people do for its laxative effect), then, over time, the amount consumed would equal or exceed the amount administered to mice in an experimental setting.
Mineral oil is just one of a number of hydrocarbons in the environment. So many uses have been found for petroleum by products that it would be difficult to trace the exposures. However, when exposures are traced, it becomes obvious that hydrocarbons are implicated in the development of a variety of diseases. Lupus is one with a proven association and systemic sclerosis is another.
A study carried out in New Mexico demonstrated just how serious the risk from hydrocarbon exposure is. The study was carried out in a small subdivision in which residents were diagnosed with lupus at very high rates. The subdivision had been built over a retired oil field. When samples of vapor and dust within these homes were examined, very elevated levels of two contaminants were detected: pristane (a hydrocarbon that may be found in mineral oil) and mercury. Researchers hypothesized that it was a “synergy” between mercury and pristane that caused the extraordinary rate of lupus. Pristane, by itself, has been shown in prior studies to be a lupus antagonist .
It’s difficult to write a post like this and not imagine the criticism with which it may be received. Hydrocarbons are everywhere. Avoiding them would probably be impossible. Risks from hydrocarbon exposure will certainly be downplayed by those who find their use convenient, or cost effective. As for mineral oil–this product is considered benign by most consumers. It’s in baby oil and petroleum jelly. It’s in candy and baked goods. It’s used to coat paper and eggs. Reasonable people may charge me with alarmism because I write this post. But I write about what I discover and I have discovered some interesting facts about mineral oil.
Personally, I’m going to check labels more carefully when I buy. Baby oil, wax paper, petroleum jelly–these will not be in my home. Soft candy, shiny candy, baked goods–labels on these products will be carefully scrutinized to ascertain if the producers have chosen to use mineral over vegetable oil.