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Exposure to radiation can occur as a result of X-rays and exposures to radioactive materials, for example after nuclear accidents.

Type 1 Diabetes and Autoimmunity

An increased risk of type 1 diabetes was seen in the region of Gomel, Belarus, following the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986. The average incidence of type 1 diabetes in the years following the accident was higher than the years preceding the accident (Martinucci et al. 2002). Comparing the Gomel region (highly exposed) to the less highly exposed Minsk region in Belarus, type 1 diabetes incidence increased significantly in Gomel, more than it did in Minsk (Zalutskaya et al. 2004). On the other hand, a similar analysis from Poland did not show an increased risk in those exposed to higher radiation levels (Bandurska-Stankiewicz and Rutkowska 2004).

Other autoimmune diseases have also been found in Belarus children following Chernobyl, including autoimmune thyroid disease (Lomat et al. 1997).

Type 2 Diabetes and Insulin Resistance

Survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima had an increasing incidence of diabetes in the decades following the radiation exposure (Ito 1994). Workers who cleaned up after Chernobyl have higher insulin levels in their blood, a precursor to type 2 diabetes (Zueva et al. 2001). Data also suggest that children who undergo total body irradiation (as part of a medical treatment for cancer) develop a state of insulin resistance (Lorini and d'Annunzio 2005).

Monkeys who were exposed to high levels of whole-body radiation developed a higher rate of diabetes 5-9 years later, as compared to monkeys were were not radiated. The exposed monkeys showed higher insulin resistance, but lower body fat levels, than controls (Kavanagh et al. 2015).

While not directly linked, the Oceania region showed the largest rise in fasting blood glucose levels in the world between 1980 and 2008, as well as the highest rates of diabetes prevalence in the world by 2008 (Danaei et al. 2011). This region was subjected to nuclear weapons testing from 1946-1958 and is exposed to acute and chronic radiation fallout (Simon et al. 2010).


A prospective study, that is, one that followed people over time, found that children of mothers exposed to magnetic fields while pregnant had and increased risk of obesity later in life (Li et al. 2012). The mothers carried a meter that measured magnetic fields while pregnant, and the children were followed for 13 years. This is the first study linking obesity to magnetic fields.

The Bottom Line

Some epidemiological suggests that high doses of radiation may contribute to type 1 and type 2 diabetes development. Whether lower doses are also implicated remains an unexplored area of research. Exposure to magnetic fields in the womb may increase a child's risk of obesity. This area is in need of more research.


To download or see a list of all the references cited on this page, see the collection Radiation and diabetes/obesity in PubMed.