Uranium toxicity might have caused obesity and diabetes in Kuwait, finds new study

According to a new research report, the extremely high prevalence of diabetes and obesity in the Gulf nation of Kuwait might be linked to the very high levels of uranium in these individuals. This in turn could be associated with the large amounts of depleted uranium dumped here in the form of US munitions during the Gulf war of 1990-91.

More than half of the Kuwait population is obese and a quarter are diabetic. Prolonged uranium uptake is already known to be associated with the development of diabetes and impaired kidney function. It causes both radiation-induced and chemical toxicity to the human kidneys, lungs and liver through a variety of mechanisms. Quite low exposures of 50 ppb (parts per billion) to 20 ppm (parts per million) can cause uranium poisoning with impaired renal function.

Kuwait City, Kuwait - circa April 1991 : Burned shell of Kuwait AIrways headquarters in Kuwait City following Operation Desert Storm in Persian Gulf War. Image Credit: Karenfoleyphotography / Shutterstock
Kuwait City, Kuwait - circa April 1991 : Burned shell of Kuwait AIrways headquarters in Kuwait City following Operation Desert Storm in Persian Gulf War. Image Credit: Karenfoleyphotography / Shutterstock

In the present study, the researchers took samples of saliva from 94 healthy 10-year-old children in Kuwait at two time points, once in 2012 and then again in 2014. This was then analyzed for a range of biomarkers, including 2PY. The children were also assessed for blood pressure, height, and weight at each visit.

The results showed that at the second measurement, over 50% of the previously healthy children had become obese and showed signs of the metabolic syndrome. This is characterized by high blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and has an increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

In the obese subgroup of children, researchers observed high salivary levels of a chemical called N1-methyl-2-pyridone-5-carboxamide (2PY). Among all the biomarkers, 2PY was most strongly associated with obesity in these children. While practically everyone has some 2PY in their saliva, high levels were found only in the saliva of children from Kuwait who had become obese. A group of comparably obese children from Maine and Massachusetts whose saliva was also measured, as a control group, failed to show the same rise in 2PY levels. This study is the first to report the association of rising 2PY levels with obesity.

2PY is formed from the vitamin niacin or nicotinamide found in meat, fish, mushrooms and nuts. 2PY inhibits an enzyme called PARP-1 which is required for repairing damaged DNA, and is related to poor renal function in humans. In rats, it is known to be associated with long-term exposure to low-level uranium.

Goodson comments, “The implication is that these children may be suffering from uranium toxicity, which may be contributing to the high rates of obesity and diabetes in Kuwait.” The uranium is probably from the contamination caused by the estimated 300 tons of US weaponry dropped on the country during the Gulf war in 1990-91. The central part of the country, where the munitions were dropped, is also the same area where soil radioactivity from 238U is at a peak and where the military is most active. It has the highest prevalence of obesity and the greatest elevations in salivary 2PY levels, while the border areas have the lowest.

The presumption is that the ingestion of low amounts of uranium over a long time has led to this metabolic disorder. However, confounding factors such as the large-scale adoption of a Westernized diet in the country following the war also must be considered.

The link between salivary 2PY and uranium exposure has so far been demonstrated in rats only, and therefore uranium levels need to be assessed in saliva and in blood before this association is confirmed in humans. Moreover, 2PY is only an indirect biomarker for uranium. Direct uranium measurements in blood and saliva in the Kuwaiti population are necessary to examine the premise that these metabolic conditions are really due to uranium toxicity.

Journal reference:

Goodson Jo Max, Hardt Markus, Hartman Mor-Li, Alqaderi Hend, Green Daniel, Tavares Mary, Mutawa Al-Sabiha, Ariga Jitendra, Soparkar Pramod, Behbehani Jawad, Behbehani Kazem, "Salivary N1-Methyl-2-Pyridone-5-Carboxamide, a Biomarker for Uranium Uptake, in Kuwaiti Children Exhibiting Exceptional Weight Gain", Frontiers in Endocrinology,
DOI:10.3389/fendo.2019.00382, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2019.00382/full

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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