|Researchers have been struggling to pinpoint the cause of the rise in food allergies in the U.S. and Western society as a whole. In around a decade the number of people diagnosed with food allergies has risen by almost 20%, but theories as to why range from not enough exposure to germs or certain foods, increased diet of highly processed foods, overexposure to certain chemicals, and any number of lesser known theories that range from the odd to the outright absurd. The fact remains that food allergies are on the rise, and there may be multiple factors in determining the cause.
Many have theorized that chemicals are playing an ever-increasing role in health issues, and a most recent study of pesticides and drinking water seems to affirm that. While the evidence is only preliminary, this study does begin to make a more solid connection between chemicals in our daily lives and how they are potentially impacting our health and allergies.
Researchers studied data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2005 to 2006. In particular, they looked at the urine concentrations of a particular compound - dichlorophenols and cross-referenced that with blood test results for common food allergens (peanuts, eggs, milk and shrimp). What they found was that people with higher concentrations of dichlorophenols were more likely to have food allergies. While the results are really only preliminary, they do seem to fit with some of the current theories about the rise in food allergies.
There are five basic types of Chlorophenols with a total of just under 20 that are in use today. Chlorophenols are the product of combining chlorine to phenol (a benzene derivative) with the resulting compounds having a variety of uses. From antiseptics and disinfectants to pesticides and bleaching agents, chlorophenols have a variety of uses in modern life. With sources ranging from drinking water to produce with pesticide residue, pinpointing their exact source can be difficult. Regardless of how chlorophenols end up in the human body, they can, as in this study, be measured through urine tests.
Overall, an examination of the data shows a correlation between higher dichlorophenol levels and an increased chances of also having food allergies. Those tested who had the highest levels were approximately 80% more likely to have food allergies than those who had the lowest concentrations of the compound. What this means is that while there is not enough evidence to show a causal relationship, there is some correlation.
Again, this still may only be one factor of many that is contributing to an increase in the number of food allergy sufferers diagnosed each year. And, this link between dichlorophenols and food allergies does relate a larger theory as to why allergies are on the rise. Whether used as a pesticide or used as a disinfecting agent in water, chlorophenols kill microbes and germs. The "hygiene hypothesis" theorizes that through a variety of chemicals, disinfectants, and other compounds, environments that are kept too clean increase the risk that the human body develops an allergy - a reaction to an otherwise innocuous substance.
Though one study is hardly reason to stop drinking chlorinated water or eating fruit and vegetables that may have been treated with pesticides, it does begin to shed a little light on the connection between our ever-increasing chemical environment and the rise in allergies.
For more information about Chlorophenols visit the CDC.