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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). Also in Chernobyl, those who survived the accident and those who helped clean up have an increased risk of diabetes, pre-diabetes, obesity, and pre-obesity (Kaminskyi et al. 2015).

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).

Regarding electromagnetic fields, a study from Saudi Arabia found that adolescents in a school with higher exposure levels to a cell phone base station had a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and higher average blood sugar levels (higher HbA1c) than students at a school with lower exposure levels (Meo et al. 2015).

Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome

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.

A laboratory study found that exposing rats to radiation (similar to that found after nuclear accidents) showed cholesterol levels increased in those exposed post-natally (Manens et al. 2016).

A Note on Childhood Cancer

While perhaps unrelated to radiation (although perhaps related, who knows), childhood cancer survivors are at an increased risk of type 1 diabetes (as well as other autoimmune diseases), according to large, population-based data in Scandinavia (Holmqvist et al. 2015). They are also at an increased risk of any type of diabetes throughout life, with the risk of type 2 slightly higher than type 1 (Holmqvist et al. 2014). It is not clear why this would be so.

Children who have received total-body irradiation to treat cancer are at risk of diabetes, insulin resistance, and a severe form of metabolic syndrome with very high triglycerides. These children should be monitored for metabolic issues over their lives (Mayson et al. 2013Rajendran et al. 2013).

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.