Diabetes in Native Americans: elevated risk as a result of exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Rev Environ Health. 2016 Mar;31(1):115-9. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2015-0054.


We have studied rates of diabetes in 601 members of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, ages 18-84 years, in relation to serum concentrations of 101 polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) congeners and three chlorinated pesticides [dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and mirex]. Diabetes was determined from either a diagnosis by a physician or by having a fasting glucose concentration of >125 mg/dL. Rates of diabetes are high in this community. Three models were used. In the first model rate ratios (RR) were determined for quartiles of total PCBs after adjustment for age, sex, body mass index (BMI) and total serum lipids. For total PCBs RR=2.21 (1.2-4.2), while for total pesticides RR=3.75 (1.3-10.7). When the total PCB results were also adjusted for total pesticides and the total pesticide results were also adjusted for total PCBs (Model 2) the RRs were somewhat reduced. In Model 3 we considered subgroups of PCBs based on numbers of chlorines on the molecule (tri-/tetra, penta-/hexa, hepta plus) and numbers of ortho chlorines (non-/mono; di-, tri-/tetra-), and considered each of the pesticides individually after adjustment for all other contaminants as well as age, sex, BMI and serum lipids. We found a highly significant association between diabetes and PCBs with only three or four chlorines (RR=5.02), but no significant association with those with greater chlorination. When evaluating PCBs based on numbers of ortho chlorines only, those with no or one ortho chlorine showed significant associations. As mono-ortho PCBs include some with dioxin-like activity, we compared those with and without a TEF, and found that the association with diabetes was exclusively with the non-dioxin-like congeners. Of the pesticides only hexachlorobenzene showed a small but significant association with diabetes. Because lower chlorinated PCBs are more volatile and do not greatly accumulate in fish, these results suggest that inhalation is the major route of exposure to those PCBs that increase risk of diabetes.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Diabetes Mellitus / epidemiology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / etiology
  • Dichlorodiphenyl Dichloroethylene / blood
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood*
  • Female
  • Fungicides, Industrial / blood*
  • Hexachlorobenzene / blood
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American
  • Insecticides / blood*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mirex / blood
  • Models, Theoretical
  • New York / epidemiology
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Overweight / epidemiology
  • Overweight / etiology
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / blood*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Fungicides, Industrial
  • Insecticides
  • Dichlorodiphenyl Dichloroethylene
  • Hexachlorobenzene
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls
  • Mirex