Understanding lupus

Are petroleum products related to lupus?

Dr. Gary Gilkeson is the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development at the Medical University of South Carolina and Chair of the Lupus Foundation of America’s Medical-Scientific Advisory Council.

See all of Gary Gilkeson, MD's answers.

Petroleum products have long been suspect in the development of lupus, and researchers are actively looking at this. In some locations within certain towns, “pockets” of illness are described and attempts to scientifically study these areas are underway. For example, recent studies looked in the Boston suburbs for environmental risks for lupus. The study also examined possible genes involved that may account for a risk for lupus. The findings of the study are not clear; for one reason, the number of participants was small.

Exposure to solvents and mineral oils also are potential risk factors for developing lupus, though, again, none are definitively associated.  Many of these studies are based on giving these compounds, often in high doses, to mice that are prone to getting lupus.  Some of these compounds lead to early development of lupus or more severe disease.  Mineral oils, such as pristane, can induce lupus in mice that are otherwise normal.  However, not all mice exposed to pristane developed lupus, and there are no data as of yet implicating mineral oils in human lupus.  These agents may be involved, but at the present time we can not say so with certainty. 

Medically reviewed on July 21, 2013