Allergies: Why Are They So Much More Prevalent & Dangerous These Days?
Anyone with kids in preschool will notice the mandated extreme avoidance of peanuts. Most of us also know kids with serious allergies, some that are even life threatening. This is a stark contrast to the PB&J school lunches I used to eat every day when I was little. Below we interview Dr. Larry Weiss, the founder of CleanWell, about what could have changed in our environment to make these allergies so much more prevalent and dangerous. Here are his thoughts:
There is definitely a significant increase in food and environmental allergies. Along with this, we are seeing increased asthma and eczema. All of these suggest a general state of immune hyperactivity. You will hear a lot of discussion about the “hygiene hypothesis” (the idea that there are more allergies because we are now more hygienic), but this is probably an oversimplification and may only be partially correct. In the end, the explanation will certainly be more complicated and nuanced. For most of us, when it comes to cleaning, it’s not that we are cleaning too much (or washing our hands too much) it’s that we are choosing to clean with the wrong things. How many of us really feel that our kids are “too clean”?
Antibiotics – More than likely the use of oral prescribed antibiotics plays a bigger role than general cleanliness does in the dramatic increase in immune hyperactivity syndromes such as asthma, eczema, and allergies. Every course of antibiotics that we take reduces the diversity of our microbiome, the healthy bacterial colonies that live on and in us. When we take antibiotics we may kill the germs that are making us sick but we also kill the bacteria that keep us healthy. American children will have received as many as 13 or more courses of antibiotics before they are 20 years old. Recent studies have found a correlation between antibiotics and childhood obesity. It is still too early to tell, but it appears that there will be more long-term health consequences as a result of altering the diversity of the bacteria that make up our microbiome. At the same time, it is important to remember that antibiotics are precious life-saving medications. Concerns about protecting our microbiome should not deter us from using antibiotics when they are appropriate. What we need to do is become more circumspect about why and when antibiotics are used.
Hand Hygiene – Everything and everyone is more interconnected now than ever before in human history. As a result, hand hygiene has never been more important. You can be sitting down to lunch or riding on an escalator with hands carrying bacteria and viruses from all around the world. These are bacteria and viruses that you may have never been exposed to before. In general this is of little or no consequence, but occasionally they can make you ill or you can spread them to others who might become ill. This is especially the case if you or anyone in your family has a chronic medical problem such as asthma, diabetes, or cancer. Hygiene is personal, but health is public and most of us could afford to wash our hands a bit more frequently. Read more on Dr. Weiss’ thoughts on The Importance of Hand Washing.
Cleaning Products – We clean for appearance but we really should be cleaning for health. Unfortunately, in our efforts to make things look nice, most of us unknowingly bring a wide variety of dangerously outdated toxic chemicals into our home. Of course we wouldn’t do this intentionally, and often we didn’t know they were toxic when we made the decision to start using them. Some of the most serious health problems related to using these chemicals have only recently become apparent. For example, the vast majority of cleaning and disinfecting products sold today contains a group of chemicals called quats (Benzalkonium Chloride and many others). There are over 2 decades of evidence in the medical literature that exposure to quats is associated with asthma, eczema, and other allergies. Childhood asthma is a major problem today with over 10% of children affected. There is also evidence that quats are immune adjuvants – this means they amplify your immune system’s response to environmental antigens. Simply stated, exposure to products containing quats can convert what would have been relatively minor allergic reaction to into a much more serious medical condition.
The fact is that some of the most popular consumer cleaning products contain chemicals with the proven potential to modify your immune system. We buy massive quantities of these products as wipes and in spray bottles and we wipe and spray them all around the places where we all live and work. Remember that we are doing this to clean so we will do it day in and day out – for years. The chemicals stick to every surface so everything that we “clean” (and everything that the mist from the spray lands upon), all the dust and everything we, and our families, touch – will always be coated with a chemical residue. We are now living with a persistent residue of powerful immune adjuvant chemicals in our homes, our bodies, and the environment. What would we expect the health consequences of this practice to be? In truth we can only speculate since there is no control group that has not been exposed. However, we are in the midst of a growing epidemic of childhood asthma, eczema, and allergies, it would seem like now is a good time to reconsider our use of these chemicals.
Quats are easy to find. We clean our schools with these chemicals; you clean your homes with them. Quats are in the leading brands of disinfecting wipes. The leading disinfecting spray is a quat, aerosolized and sprayed all over homes. Several leading companies have recently decided to put quats in consumer hand soap. A couple of the more common names to look for on the bottle are benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride, but there are may others. These, and other quats, are the active ingredient in most all-in-one disinfectants. A good first step is to read the label. The EPA requires that they list the active ingredient on the front of the product. You should also get out a magnifying glass to read the health and safety warnings. To your surprise you will find that you have to wash your hands after using the product, even the wipes, and you have to rinse any surface that food might touch with clean water.
The chemistry for quats was developed in the thirties, but wasn’t introduced into general commerce until the sixties and seventies, mostly in janitorial and healthcare. When it was, we saw the incidence of occupational asthma and dermatitis go through the roof, as high as 70% in some of these groups. They were then pushed out into “all-in-one” consumer products in late eighties, early nineties. This is around the time we saw incidence of allergies and asthma rise dramatically.
Does everyone using these antimicrobial products need them? No, but many families would benefit from the additional protection that these products can offer, provided that the product doesn’t expose them to dangerously outdated chemicals. Disinfecting is useful and important when family members are ill, the child with a runny nose who came over for a play date touched every toy in your house, you’ve just cooked with raw meat, someone in the home has a compromised immune system, the diaper leaked all over the changing table, etc. We formulated CleanWell products to be appropriate for these families. Our active ingredient is Thyme Oil. Thyme has been part of human diet, culture, and folk medicine for thousands of years. We believe that you can’t make an informed decision without complete transparency and we list every ingredient in all of our products on our company website CleanWell. You should understand exactly what you are buying and why you are bringing it into your home. When choosing a disinfectant, or any cleaning product, you should expect and demand to know what is in the bottle. Read the back label, especially the warnings, and make sure you feel comfortable using that product in your home and around your kids and pets. We make CleanWell products to give you a healthy choice. We should all strive to make smarter, healthier choices.
As individuals we have the power to eliminate quats and other toxic chemicals from our homes. As communities we have the power to reduce and eliminate them from our schools and workplaces. We cast our vote in the marketplace when we decide not to buy products that we feel are dangerous or toxic. We don’t need to wait for the state or federal government, we have the power to act in our own best interest. If we stop buying dangerous products, ultimately they will no longer manufacture them and we will all be a little bit healthier.
As we have mentioned before, something is definitely different in the environment between when we grew up and now. This is apparent in the high prevalence of allergies we see in kids today versus when we were young. Now we have learned that an increase in certain chemicals in the late eighties/early nineties correlates with the increase in asthma and allergies we see. It cannot be just a coincidence. Many families we know use Lysol around their kids and Clorox wipes on the trays of their highchairs, believing that they are keeping their homes “clean”. I hope by spreading the word about quats that we can help people to think more carefully about the chemicals they use around their children.