Of 216 patients tested, 32 (16%) had high levels of dangerous metals and substances, including arsenic, lead, chromium, fluoride, iron and cadmium.
When doctors at AIIMS decided to run tests for environmental toxins on patients with serious illnesses whose cause couldn’t be established, they were shocked by the results. Of 216 patients tested, 32 (16%) had high levels of dangerous metals and substances, including arsenic, lead, chromium, fluoride, iron and cadmium.
The findings, doctors told TOI , have reaffirmed their concern about environmental toxins causing a spurt in many illnesses, including cancer, neuro-development disorders, congenital diseases and gastrointestinal issues, among others. Most of these toxins get into the body through contaminated water, air and soil. “To establish the cause and effect between these toxins and the diseases, we plan to screen all patients with illnesses of unknown origin for heavy metals and other environmental toxins,” Dr A Shariff, founder of the clinical toxicology lab at AIIMS, said.
Study to focus on cause-effect link between toxins and diseases
He added that the institute had recently set up a new lab that has facility to screen patients for more than 17 heavy metals and toxins. Diagnosis is done through a simple blood test or analysis of urine sample, Dr Shariff said. “We plan to expand the scope of testing further in the coming days,” he added.
Dr Randeep Guleria, the director of AIIMS, said identification of heavy metals in patients visiting the institute is only an index case. “Our aim is to spot trends involving patients belonging to specific areas, who have high levels of a certain toxin, and find the source,” he said.
“For example, some areas have high levels of arsenic or iron in the water and this could be causing some illness. If we can establish this link, people in the area can be made aware of it. They can be warned about the polluted water source and local administration can take policy decisions to make safe water available,” Dr Guleria said. The incidence of lung cancer among young adults, who don’t smoke, is also diagnosed frequently. The AIIMS director said blood tests to find the presence of environmental toxins may help establish links, if any, between air pollutants and the disease.
“If we can show through research the cause and effect relationship between environmental toxins and illnesses such as lung cancer, policymakers and the public will take the threat of pollutants more seriously and act to reduce it. That is our hope,” Dr Guleria said.
According to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, contaminated water, air and soil are responsible for about nine million early deaths, which is about 16% of global deaths. About 92% of these early deaths due to environmental toxicity occur in low and middle-income countries, which includes India.
Experts say children are most affected by environmental toxins as their exposure to even low concentrations during intrauterine life and early childhood can result in lifelong physical and/or mental disabilities, if not death. “There are multiple global researches that link environmental toxins to neuro-development disorders in children,” said a paediatric neurologist.