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A common chemical which turns things like food, medicines, toothpastes and paper white could cause type 2 diabetes, a study has found. Titanium dioxide is widely used in food and cosmetics for its brilliant white properties, but scientists found it crystallises in the pancreas of diabetics. The small study by the University of Texas suggests people without diabetes do not have the chemical in the body, which could point to a groundbreaking link between the condition and everyday objects.
WHAT IS TITANIUM DIOXIDE?
Titanium dioxide is a fine white powdered form of the metal element titanium. The chemical is not thought to occur naturally inside the human body. It is commonly used around the world because it is brilliant white and can be used to colour a huge range of objects. Everyday items which are likely to contain titanium dioxide as a colourant include toothpaste, suncream, makeup – in which it is used to brighten the skin, plastics, paper, wall paint, ink and white medicine pills. Researchers say the chemical may enter the human bloodstream if it is inhaled or eaten.
Titanium dioxide began to be widely used in the mid-1900s to replace toxic lead-based colourings in household items like paint and plastics. Scientists say since the 1960s, around four million tonnes of the chemical have been produced each year and, since the 1970s, cases of type 2 diabetes have quadrupled.
One expert said the use of the white colouring 'could be a factor in the type 2 diabetes epidemic.'
Now, the scientists in Austin, Texas, suggest the particles may damage the pancreas by provoking an immune response from white blood cells, causing inflammation and which kills healthy cells in the organ.
Type 2 diabetes is described as an 'epidemic' by one of the researchers. More than 3.5 million people in the UK, and over 422 million worldwide, have diabetes, and 90 percent of them have type 2.
The condition is caused by insulin – a hormone which is made by the pancreas – either not being used properly by the body or not being made in large enough quantities. This means the body cannot regulate blood sugar levels properly, which increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, blindness and kidney failure.
The buildup of titanium dioxide exclusively in the pancreases of people with type 2 diabetes suggests a link between the two. To discover this link researchers studied pancreas specimens from 11 people to look for evidence of titanium dioxide.
Eight of the pancreases were from people who had type 2 diabetes and three were from those who did not. All eight of the diabetic pancreases contained crystallised particles of titanium dioxide, but none of the non-diabetic ones did.
The research was led by Dr Adam Heller, a diabetes expert, who suggests titanium dioxide particles could cause diabetes in a similar way to how asbestos particles cause lung disease – by damaging healthy body tissue.
As titanium dioxide production has boomed since the 1960s, the percentage of the world's population with type 2 diabetes nearly doubled from 4.7 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 2014, according to the World Health Organisation.
'The increased use of titanium dioxide over the last five decades could be a factor in the type 2 diabetes epidemic,' Dr Heller said.