A recent study of 757 Canadian children published in the Canadian Medical Journal found that frequent use of chemical disinfectants was associated with increased risk of overweight at age three.
Disinfectants, Gut Health, and Weight
Using the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) cohort, researchers looked at how often participating families used commercial disinfectants and took microbial samples from infants at age 3-4 months. They also evaluated body mass index (BMI) of the children in the study at age three.
They found that families with the most frequent use of chemical disinfectants had infants with higher levels of a bacteria called Lachnospiraceae in fecal samples and greater incidence of being overweight when evaluated at three years of age.
Principal investigator Anita Kozyrskyj, professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, explains that the study is significant because “It’s the first study to show the impact of household cleaners, namely disinfectants, on composition of gut bacteria in infants.”
“We found those households that have really high use of disinfectant — more than once weekly — those infants were more likely to become overweight at age three.”
–Anita Kozyrsky, Professor of Pediatrics
Researchers surveyed participants to find out about the cleaning products they used and how often they used them. While they did not request information about specific brands of cleaners or their ingredients, participants answered how frequently they used individual types of cleaners, including bleach and other disinfecting products, detergents, and an array of other household cleaning products. One of the options was “eco-friendly & organic cleaning product.”
“We found those households that have really high use of disinfectant — more than once weekly — those infants were more likely to become overweight at age three,” Kozyrskyj explained. Infants growing up in households that reported frequent use of “eco” products were less likely to be overweight.
The study used a statistical tool called a mediation test to confirm that the relationship between high frequency of disinfectant use and weight was affected by differences in the children’s gut bacteria at age 3-4 months.
Mounting evidence has linked altered gut flora to a range of health impacts, including predisposition to autoimmune disease, allergies, and metabolic problems. Research has also shown that gut flora also can affect mood and behaviour.
Numerous elements of modern life, scientists have discovered, have radically altered the human microbiome in the last fifty years. Diet and environmental exposure to microbes have changed significantly since the mid-twentieth century, with children growing up in far cleaner environments than in the past and with much less exposure to communicable disease.
These changes, while in many ways positive for health, also seem to alter kids’ gut flora, with health effects that are just beginning to be understood. Without exposure to household microbes, researchers believe, children’s immune systems often misfire, recognising harmless substances like peanut proteins as dangerous and disturbing normal bodily processes, like metabolism. Many suspect the rise in behavioural disorders among children may also be linked to altered gut bacteria. At follow-ups with the CHILD cohort at ages five and eight, Kozyrskyj’s team will look at rates of allergies, asthma, and food sensitivities.
More pediatricians and microbiologists are speaking out about the dangers of an overly-clean environment and encouraging parents to ease up on their efforts to sterilize every surface a child may encounter.
After decades of learning that “germs” are the enemy, many of us need to shift perspective and allow for what turns out to be a healthy amount of dirt in kids’ lives. Research continues to mount showing that getting dirty has some surprising health benefits.
“By one year of age,” Kozyrskyj points out, “your microbial composition is what you’re going to have for the rest of your life,” so the choices we make in that first year of life are especially critical, as they may affect a child’s health throughout their lifetime. “One practical piece of advice is to reduce the frequency of disinfectant use when there is a young infant in house,” says Kozyrskyj. Cutting down on disinfection will allow your baby’s body to encounter microbes it needs for proper development of its microbiome.
Cleaning Ingredients to Avoid
You can get your home clean without damaging the gut flora of your family. While disinfecting cleaners have become popular for their efficacy in killing germs, they kill more than is necessary to protect from disease, and are proving to have some far-reaching negative impacts on overall health.
Common ingredients in commercial disinfectants include bleach, triclosan, and quaternary compounds, or quats. While these products will kill dangerous bacteria and viruses, they will also kill harmless ones. In addition to these chemicals’ impact on human gut flora, commercial cleaners often contain preservatives and other ingredients linked to hormone disruption, respiratory problems, and cancer.
According to research done by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, many cleaning products use formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, as a preservative. More than half of the cleaners they evaluated contained quats, which may cause asthma. One of the more common chemical disinfectants, bleach, can release chlorine and chloroform, suspected carcinogens that may also have neurological and respiratory health effects.
Additionally, the chemical fragrances added to make these often stinky products smell better may have negative health impacts of their own. Phthalates, which disrupt the endocrine system, are commonly used in synthetic fragrances.
Exposure at School
Of course, our kids’ exposure to commercial cleaners are not limited to the home. Many schools and preschools now require parents to donate bleach-containing wipes, which are used to disinfect surfaces in classrooms on a daily basis. While this practice may lessen the incidence of food-borne illness and reduce the number of colds kids come down with, it also exposes them to a cocktail of chemicals that may be harming their long-term health.
Talk to your school about switching to eco-friendly alternatives, which use plant-based ingredients to wipe out pathogens without exposing kids to hormone and gut-disrupting chemicals.
Homemade and Non-Toxic Cleaning Products
Making the switch to less aggressive and microbe-destroying cleaners is pretty easy. The number of plant-based cleaning products has skyrocketed in recent years as awareness of the potential dangers of industrial chemicals has grown.
Eco-friendly household cleaners using simple ingredients like essential oils and plant-based soaps remove grime without killing every microbe. From floors to windows to counters, you can find gentler cleaners that will clean without needlessly disinfecting.
But don’t go overboard disinfecting every surface in your house, so your family still gets exposed to beneficial doses of microbes. Though the study didn’t look into plant-based disinfectants, overuse of effective anti-microbial — even eco-friendly ones — could yield similar results on the gut flora of infants.
As surprising as it may seem, a pared-down approach to germ-killing may have long-term benefits for you and your family. If you haven’t already, perhaps it’s time to make the switch to safer, less aggressive cleaning practices so your family’s microbiomes can encounter the germs they need to develop optimally.