Print Friendly, PDF & Email

From the Townsend Letter Archives
August/September 1999

Health Risks and Environmental Issues
Lupus and Environmental Risk Factors
by Rose Marie Williams, MA

Search this site
Lupus, an autoimmune and chronic inflammatory disease can affect the central nervous system, all major organs, and skin. Symptoms include generalized aching, weakness, malaise, fatigue, low-grade fever, chill, facial rash, sun sensitivity, immune disorders, arthritic-like pain, joint swelling, stiffness, blood and kidney disorders, seizures, convulsions, and psychosis.1Lupus is often misdiagnosed as “flu,” and many of the symptoms resemble those of other environmental illnesses, i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity. Infections, antibiotics, ultraviolet light, stress, and certain drugs can trigger the disease. Lupus affects women ten to 15 times more often than men and seems to have a hormonal connection, particularly to estrogen.2

The current belief is that lupus is organic, originating within the individual’s body, initiated by toxins or genetic disposition. However, it can also be iatrogenic, caused by many drugs prescribed for the treatment of other unrelated illnesses. It appears there are more than 80 different drugs that can bring on lupus symptoms.3

Immune and Autoimmune Systems
The immune system is very complex, composed of many different cell types that interact in highly interdependent ways not yet fully understood. Proper functioning of the immune system depends on delicate control over the growth and development of immune system cells and hormone-like compounds that regulate them.4 DDT, PCBs, dioxins, fluoride, and many pesticides can interfere with proper immune function. DDT, banned for use on food crops in the US, is persistent in the environment because it breaks down very slowly. It continues to be produced in foreign countries and is used on food crops shipped to the US. In some cases, DDT is still used here for mosquito and malaria control that might otherwise threaten public health. PCBs, another class of toxic chemicals banned in the 1970s, continue to be pervasive in our environment. “PCBs and dioxins affect the thyroid system in diverse, complex, and as yet incompletely understood ways,” warns Dr. Theo Colborn, senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund and expert on endocrine-disrupting chemicals.5

Dioxins are the unwanted by-products of incineration, metal smelting, pesticide manufacture, and chlorine bleached paper. Dioxins are known to depress the immune system, interfere with thyroid function, blood glucose levels, sexual development, and testosterone development. Dioxins can be powerful biological dysregulators, interfering with proper function of the body’s many physiological systems, including the immune system.6-8

The immune system can be damaged by the overuse of antibiotics, which can also launch an attack of lupus in susceptible individuals.9 Drugs and pesticides can suppress the immune system, leading to infectious disease and cancer. Over-stimulation of the immune system may increase allergic reactions and autoimmune disease, such as lupus and scleroderma, whereby the immune system mistakes the body’s own normal cells for foreign cells and attacks them.10

A much-overlooked assault on the hormonal and immune systems comes from ingested or inhaled fission products. When radioactive fission particles come down in rain and enter the food chain, immune systems become vulnerable to free-radical damage.11 It might surprise readers to learn that state health departments periodically test samples of dairies for levels of radioactive contamination. Ingested fission products bioaccumulate up the food chain into much higher concentrations than the naturally occurring isotopes. For example, when cows graze over large exposed areas, the radioactive iodine will concentrate in them. When humans, who are at the top of the food chain, ingest contaminated dairy products, water, fruits, or vegetables, the adverse effects continue to multiply as the radioactive substances concentrate in the thyroid or bone marrow.12

Four eminent authorities, Dr. John Gofman, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, Dr. Thomas Mancuso, and Dr. Alice Stewart, all employed at various times with the US Atomic Energy Commission or Department of Energy, conclude there is no level of radiation low enough to be deemed “safe.”13 These scientists, in addition to Dr. Helen Caldicott of Australia, are willing to take a stand on behalf of public health and freely discuss the subtle, though quite serious, damage inflicted on the immune system by exposure to low-levels of radiation. This is a topic much avoided by government and industry.

Fluoride, another extremely toxic substance has a direct effect on the immune system and can aggravate symptoms for sufferers of autoimmune disorders, such as lupus. Approximately 30% of the body’s cell protein is composed of collagen. Lupus is a disease of the connective tissue.14 Fluoride disrupts the synthesis of collagen, which leads to the breakdown of collagen in skin, muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, lungs, kidneys, trachea, cartilage, and more, according to research conducted at the All India Institute of Medical Science.15

Fluoride is used in many steroid drugs as a means of transporting those drugs through the body. Lupus sufferers might benefit by avoiding ingesting fluoride from all sources and finding a toothpaste without fluoride, available from most health food stores. Some pesticides contain fluoride,16 as well as estrogen-mimicking chemicals. It is a good idea to wash all fruits and vegetables. Whenever possible, buy organic.

Chemical Connection
Chemicals are everywhere, yet we know very little about them. There are more than 70,000 chemicals in daily use, but less than 20% have been tested for adverse health effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists studying human tissue found residues in excess of 400 chemicals.17 The adverse effects of low-dose exposures, repeated exposures, and synergistic exposures to multiple chemicals remain unclear, not so the continual rise of disorders of the immune system such as cancer, asthma, allergies, and lupus.

Early signs of pesticide poisoning are flu-like symptoms (achiness, fatigue, weakness, chest pains, headaches, numbness, tingling, and depression). Dr. Sherry Rogers, a physician specializing in environmental medicine in Syracuse, New York, reminds us that pesticides are registered with the US EPA because they are potentially dangerous, not because they are safe to use,18 even though the chemical industry works hard to convince us of their safety.

Endocrine Disrupters and Hormones
Many scientists are now focusing on a class of chemicals called endocrine disrupters, which interfere with, or mimic, the action of hormones, thereby upsetting the normal growth, behavior, and reproduction of wildlife. Scientists are wondering, since these compounds are harming wildlife, what harm they might be doing to people too.19

The endocrine system in animals and humans functions basically the same way – a complex network of glands (thyroid, ovaries, testes, pancreas, adrenals, parathyroid, thymus), organ tissue (the intestines) that secrete hormones. Hormones act as chemical messengers carrying important instructions throughout the bloodstream to affect growth, metabolism, reproduction, and other functions elsewhere in the body.20 Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can interfere with this delicate process by sending the wrong signals, or blocking the right signals, all with disastrous consequences to an individual’s health.21 Dioxins, PCBs, DDT and its metabolites are recognized as endocrine disrupters. Research has found that some plastics, though less well known, are also recognized as hormone mimics. Plasticizers may leach from wraps and containers into fatty foods and from landfills into the environment.22

Women diagnosed with lupus appear to have very low levels of testosterone, because their bodies break down the hormone more rapidly than usual. High doses of estrogen, such as those contained in some birth control pills, can instigate lupus-like symptoms and aggravate existing lupus. The menstrual cycle and pregnancy (times of great hormone fluctuation) can also bring on lupus symptoms.23

Diet and Exogenous Estrogens
While there have been very few studies on lupus and diet some anecdotal information indicates a low-protein, low-fat diet has been helpful for some lupus patients.24 An environmental perspective on this piece of the puzzle would associate low-protein, low-fat diet with avoidance of meat and dairy products. Modern meat and dairy production is associated with high antibiotic use, added hormones, and grain contaminated with estrogen-mimicking pesticides, all of which seem to have major roles in the lupus drama. Many of the estrogenic chemicals are lipid-soluble, attach to fatty substances in meat and dairy products, and bioaccumulate up the food chain with humans receiving the highest doses in the foods they eat. Not only are we subjected to an overdose of prescription antibiotics, but heavy meat and dairy eaters get a steady diet of additional antibiotics with their food. Perhaps this should be looked at more closely for lupus patients, since it is recognized that antibiotics can trigger symptoms in some individuals.

Dr. Janet D. Sherman from Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that women with breast cancer have fat tissue biopsies done to evaluate their body’s load of chemical toxins. It would be interesting to learn about the body’s level of chemical residue for lupus patients as well. Perhaps this information would increase our understanding of immune disorders and environmental risk factors. A new paradigm for diagnosing, treating, and preventing this disease is needed.

Detoxification and Enzymes
Fungicides designed to kill mold on fruit and vegetable crops can interfere with our production of hormones. Other pesticides attack the nervous system and have the ability to destroy a family of enzymes that perform vital body functions in maintaining good health.25 The body adapts to chemical exposure by producing more enzymes, which are used in the process of detoxification. “Pesticides are difficult for the body to completely detoxify and eliminate, and the leftover metabolites can trigger cancer and autoimmune diseases,” states Dr. Sherry Rogers. “Once an individual’s detoxification capacities are overwhelmed, progressive and subtle symptoms gradually develop and health is destroyed.”26

The detoxification system works through enzyme reactions in every cell in the body, primarily in the liver and gut wall. Based on genetics, diet, and total load of environmental contaminants, individuals vary greatly in their ability to detoxify chemicals. A healthy person with a high detox enzyme level can handle 40 times the amount of a toxic chemical as someone with a low enzyme level.27 Dietary factors rank high in the detox process. According to Dr. Rogers, a meat-rich diet alters the type of bacteria in the bowel, which reduces the efficiency of the secondary phase of the detox process, thereby setting the stage for myriad health problems to manifest.28

Could lupus be caused by an overload of environmental chemicals that damage the immune system, disrupt the endocrine system, and weaken the body’s ability to detoxify itself? Should lupus be included in the growing list of environmental illnesses?

Most research to date has been focused on looking for drugs to mitigate the symptoms. Some of these drugs actually worsen the disease in the long run by adding to the individual’s load of toxic chemicals. A better strategy might include an emphasis on prevention by looking more closely at all the pieces of puzzle, particularly the environmental factors.

“Lupus Hope – In a study at the University of Tokyo, herbs were given to four people with lupus who had resulting kidney problems made worse by taking standard anti-inflammatory drugs such as predisone and azathioprine…Three patients stopped having relapses and were able to stop the drugs once they started taking an anti-inflammatory Chinese blend with bupleurum (Bupleurum falcatum) as the main ingredient. A study from the Research Institute of Oriental Medicine found that a component in this herb has a protective action on kidney cells. The Oriental Medicine Research Center at the Kitasato Institute in Tokyo reports that traditional Japanese Kampo medicines containing Oriental licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis) also treat inflammation. Another person taking high doses of steroids to treat lupus was given anti-inflammatory curcumin from turmeric (Curcuma longa) and bromelain from pineapple (Ananas camosus), to help absorb it. She slowly tapered off and then stopped taking her drugs, according to John O’Hearne, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Family Practice at the University of Colorado in Boulder.”29

1. McTaggart L. What Doctors Don’t Tell You. 1997;7(9).
2. Lahita R.What Is Lupus? The Lupus Foundation of America, Inc.
3. McTaggart, op cit.
4. Fagin, D, Lavelle, M. Toxic Deception. New Jersey: Carol Publishing; 1996.
5. Colborn T, et al. Our Stolen Future. New York: Penguin Group; 1996.
6. Montague P. Rachel’s Environmental Health Weekly. Issue 536.
7. Steingraber S. Living Downstream, An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley;1997.
8. Gibbs L. Dying from Dioxin. Boston: South End Press; 1995.
9. McTaggart, op cit.
10. Fagin, op cit.
11. Gould J, Goldman B. Deadly Deception Low-Level Radiation. High-Level Cover-Up. New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows; 1991.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. McTaggart, op cit.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Rogers S. Are Chemicals Making Me Sick? A Primer on Chemical Sensitivity. Baltimore: Phillips Publishing; 1997.
18. Ibid.
19. Repetto R, Baliga S. Pesticides and the Immune System: The Public Health Risks. Washington, DC: World Resource Institute; 1996.
20. Colburn T, et al. Our Stolen Future. New York: Penguin Group; 1996.
21. Hormone Mimics – They’re in Our Food. Should We Worry? Consumer’s Report. June 1998: 52-55.
22. Ibid.
23. McTaggart, op cit.
24. Ibid.
25. Rogers S, op cit.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. The American Herb Association. 1996; 12 (4): 16.

Thanks to the Townsend Letter.