Superfund Research Program

April 2019

A new Superfund Research Program (SRP) study showed that arsenic-exposed Chileans with lower socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to develop diabetes than those with higher SES. According to the authors, these results suggest that low SES individuals may be more vulnerable to some of the harmful effects of arsenic exposure, such as type 2 diabetes.

Stephanie Eick

Eick is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia, working with Jose Cordero, M.D., as part of the Northeastern University SRP Center.
(Photo courtesy of Stephanie Eick)

The study, led by SRP trainee Stephanie Eick, a 2018 SRP KC Donnelly Externship Award winner, stems from her externship work with Craig Steinmaus, Ph.D., at the University of California (UC), Berkeley SRP Center.

During her externship, she used data collected from a cancer study in Northern Chile to evaluate links between arsenic, diabetes, and socioeconomic status. The study population gets their drinking water from municipal sources that have been monitored for arsenic for many decades, with wide ranges in concentrations during that time. Because of the comprehensive records of past arsenic water concentrations, the researchers can estimate lifetime arsenic exposure.

Both arsenic and low SES have previously been linked to type 2 diabetes, so Eick set out to evaluate whether arsenic-related diabetes risks differ between people with low and high SES. She used data from a self-reporting survey to estimate SES, which collected information such as ownership of household appliances and cars. The researchers also collected information about participants' sex, diet, weight, and other health conditions.

Eick determined that within the group with below average SES, people with the highest arsenic exposure had 2.2 times greater risk of type 2 diabetes than people with the lowest arsenic exposure. Within the above average SES group, arsenic exposure did not substantially change their risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the authors, these findings contribute to the growing body of literature suggesting that low SES is an important risk factor for environmentally-induced diseases.