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University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center
Publish Date: 01/30/01
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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Physician Notes Environmental Link to Autoimmune Diseases

Cincinnati--According to a growing number of physicians including Evelyn V. Hess, MD, MACP, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine, as environmental exposures increase so do the number of patients with autoimmune diseases such as lupus or scleroderma. Autoimmune diseases are the result of our bodies' defenses turning against us. Recent research suggests exposure to industrial chemicals in the environment may cause autoimmune disorders. Hess said contaminated cooking oil was responsible for 35,000 cases of autoimmune diseases in Spain.

"An autoimmune disorder epidemic in the United States was traced to a contaminant in L-tryptophan, a dietary health supplement," Hess said. L-tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein foods, was sold as a weight-loss aid in health-food stores. "L-tryptophan, the naturally occurring hormone that makes you sleepy after eating a Thanksgiving dinner, was sold over-the-counter until banned by the Food and Drug Administration in recent years," Hess said.

More than 90 percent of lupus sufferers are female and researchers want to know why. In a special supplement to the Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences entitled "Environmental Health Perspectives," Hess wrote that "anything we eat, drink, breathe or absorb into our bodies can be environmental agents that trigger autoimmune diseases." In the same journal, researchers from the University of California-Davis reported a long list of xenobiotic (foreign) substances that were examined. Many of these substances were found to trigger an autoimmune response. The list of known substances that trigger antibodies to attack their own tissues includes: mercury, iodine, vinyl chloride, silica, UV radiation and ozone.

Some people are genetically predisposed to autoimmune diseases, but may not show signs of lupus or rheumatoid arthritis until exposure to certain environmental substances. Infectious agents, such as retroviruses, measles, rubella, influenza and the Epstein-Barr virus, could trigger an immune system response so strong that it can do severe damage to the body it is trying to protect. The researchers quoted in "Environmental Health Perspectives" concluded many chemicals found in the environment today need further study to see if they trigger these chronic immune diseases.

Drugs that have been definitively associated with "drug-related" lupus include: chlorpromazine, hydralazine, isoniazid, methyldopa, minocycline, procainamide, and quinidine. Since 1957, at least 70 drugs and other agents have been linked with autoimmune diseases.

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