Household Chemicals Causing Obesity

household cleaners obesity

Story at-a-glance -

  • Air pollution affects your health indoors and outside; using satellite data, the Health Effects Institute found that 95 percent of the world is breathing polluted air
  • A recent study demonstrates exposure to household cleaners, a source of indoor air pollution, affects the gut microbiome of young children and increases their risk of obesity
  • Obesity carries a high cost to the individual and society as it increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and several cancers; it was also added as a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disability Act in 2011
  • One of the primary reasons to regularly clean is removing many of the toxic chemicals accumulating in house dust, but commercial cleaners only introduce more; consider nontoxic alternatives you may make at home using common household staple ingredients

By Dr. Mercola

Using satellite data, the Health Effects Institute found that 95 percent of the world is breathing polluted air.1 Their statistics are based on outdoor sources of pollution, including transportation vehicles, industrial activity and coal power plants. Although these numbers are considerable, they are likely conservative and do not account for small particulate pollution in your home.

Over the past 50 years the number of soaps and detergents have grown at an amazing rate as manufacturers work to meet the demands of consumers looking for quick, fragrant solutions to a dirty problem.2 However, using these chemical household cleaners as seldom as once a week come with significant health risks.

For example, one recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine3 demonstrated weekly exposure to chemical cleaning solutions increases your risk of lung damage from fine particulate air pollution.

Disinfectants and Detergents Increase Your Child’s Risk of Obesity

Another study4 has linked exposure to cleaning products in early childhood to an increased risk of obesity. According to research published in 2013,5 20 percent of American deaths are associated with obesity, and the younger you are, the greater the influence on your mortality. Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the U.S. and the rate of obese teens has quadrupled.

In this study, the researchers evaluated the gut flora of more than 750 babies between the ages of 3 and 4 months who were part of the Canadian Health Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) cohort. Fecal samples were collected at the start and end of the study to evaluate the type and number of bacteria.

During the study, researchers asked parents how often cleaning products were used and confirmed these answers with a visit to the residence. Reassessment was done at age 1 and 3 years, including a measurement of the child's weight.6 The data revealed a change in the child's gut microbiota, which differed depending upon the cleaning products used in the home.

For instance, children exposed to disinfectants had higher levels of Lachnospiraceae bacteria while levels of Haemophilus dropped. Children who lived in homes where eco-friendly products were used had lower levels of Enterobacteriaceae.

When the child's weight was measured at the end of the study, those in contact with disinfectants had higher BMI scores, whereas homes where eco-friendly products were used experienced an inverse trend. The researchers controlled for a wide range of other potential factors affecting changes in gut bacteria, such as vaginal or cesarean birth, breastfeeding and exposure to antibiotics.7

While there was no evidence that gut microbiome changes caused the reduction in obesity risk, the analysis showed exposure to detergents and disinfectants did increase the risk.8 Lead author and pediatric professor at the University of Alberta, Anita Kozyrskyj, commented on the results:9

“A possible explanation is that mothers who used eco-friendly products during pregnancy had more nutritious diets and a healthier pregnancy.

As a result, their healthy microbiome was passed on to their newborns, leading to both a lower chance of their infants having lower levels of Enterobacteriaceae three to four months later and becoming overweight. When infants are implicated, changing the composition of microbiota at a critical time of development may affect the immune system.”

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The High Cost of Obesity

In December 2011, severe obesity was included as a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, raising the cost to society as a whole. Data collected from thousands of Canadians has also confirmed obesity surpasses smoking in terms of creating ill-health, and Dutch researchers have predicted obesity and inactivity will overtake smoking as a leading cause of cancer deaths.

One study10 reviewed data from more than 170 countries measuring health effects associated with body mass index (BMI) and found 12 percent of adults, globally, are obese. When those who are overweight but not obese are included, the global rate is nearly 30 percent. This echoes previous studies and suggests there are now more overweight people than there are underweight ones.11 

Many who are obese develop Type 2 diabetes, a condition caused by insulin and leptin resistance. Those with Type 2 diabetes are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, stroke, heart attack and negative health conditions associated with damage to microvasculature, including blindness and kidney disease.

Obesity also increases your risk of developing gallstones, crystal-like deposits created inside your gallbladder.12 The stones may be made from cholesterol in individuals who are obese, and the size can vary from a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. While they don't always cause symptoms, if they block the pancreatic duct you may experience noticeable pain lasting several hours.

A study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging has also found structural changes in the brains of overweight individuals typically seen in far older people.13 The researchers discovered those who are overweight had accelerated loss of the brain's white matter, and calculated the volume lost in an overweight 50-year-old was comparable to the same volume lost in a slim 60-year-old.

The loss may be related to an increased inflammatory response, but the exact reason remains undetermined. Higher amounts of body fat can contribute to various forms of cancer. While the connection isn't clear, doctors believe low-level inflammation caused by obesity can gradually damage DNA over time, leading to cancer. The following types of cancer have been linked to obesity:

Endometrial cancer

Esophageal adenocarcinoma

Breast cancer

Gastric cardia cancer

Liver cancer

Kidney cancer

Pancreatic cancer

Colorectal cancer

Strong Link Between Gut Microbiome and Weight

The importance of the human gut microbiome to health is only beginning to be explored. Several studies have described the structure and capacity of the microbiome in a healthy state and a variety of disease states.14 Ongoing efforts to characterize the function and mechanism continue to provide a better understanding of the role gut microbiome plays in health and disease.

The gut microbiome changes quickly during the first year or two of life and is shaped by breast milk, the environment and other factors. However, the number and type of bacteria tends to stabilize by the time you are 3 years old.15 That said, exposure to antibiotics, cleaning supplies, stress, processed foods and medications can all impact the health of your gut microbiome.

The bacteria have been linked to how people respond to medications, and it’s been suggested it may be linked with how well you sleep. Weight management is another area of health affected by the type of bacteria living in your gut. Your gut microbes influence appetite, inflammation and efficiency of metabolizing, and have a significant impact on your immune system.

Data from a Danish study16 revealed your gut microbiome may be responsible for how much weight you can lose and under what circumstances. The study's coauthor, Arne Astrup, Ph.D., explained:17

"Human intestinal bacteria have been linked to the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity, and scientists have started to investigate whether the intestinal bacteria can play a role in the treatment of overweight.

But it is only now that we have a breakthrough demonstrating that certain bacterial species play a decisive role in weight regulation and weight loss."

In studies comparing intestinal bacteria in obese and lean individuals, researchers found lean individuals had a rich community of microbes brimming with many species, but obese individuals had a less diverse group of microbiota.18

Although documenting the differences does not indicate discrepancies are responsible for obesity, further research in animal studies19 and the featured study indicate changes in got microbiome may hold a significant clue to weight management.

For example, in one small study,20 calorie restriction and physical activity was found to impact the composition of the gut microbiome. The goal of the study was to determine the influence of a treatment program on the gut microbiome, finding those in the high weight loss group experienced a greater change in total bacterial growth and diversity than those in the low weight loss group.

Weekly Use of Chemical Cleaners Comparable to Pack-a-Day Smoking

As mentioned earlier, exposure to cleaning solutions as seldom as once a week may accelerate decline in lung function, as demonstrated by research from the University of Bergen in Norway.21 The researchers found once-weekly use of cleaning solutions for 20 years produced damage to lung tissue equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 12 years.

The researchers used data from over 6,000 participants whose average age was 34 at the time of enrollment in the study. After 20 years of follow-up, women who used commercial cleaning solutions experienced reductions in lung function, measured by forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity, at a much faster rate than those who used them less frequently or not at all.

Nontoxic Cleaners Safer for You and the Environment

The average American worker spends nearly one hour on housework daily.22 However, there's a misconception that in order to get a truly clean home, you have to put on rubber gloves and spray harsh chemicals.

One of the primary reasons to regularly clean is to remove many of the toxic chemicals accumulating in house dust, including flame retardants and phthalates.23 However using commercial sprays, wipes and scrubs actually introduces more toxins into your environment.

If you've ever felt sick, dizzy or gotten a headache after cleaning your home with typical supplies, it's likely because of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Long-term use of these chemicals can damage your liver, kidneys, central nervous system and even cause cancer.24

After testing 25 household products, including air fresheners and all-purpose cleaners, researchers found the average product contains 17 VOCs.25 Products with fragrances are particularly problematic and studies reveal nearly 35 percent of Americans have had health problems when exposed to them.26 

Meanwhile, a typical professional cleaning product will contain more than a 132 different chemicals, among them fragrances, surfactants, phosphates, detergents and more.

If you are ready to switch to nontoxic, efficient and effective cleaners, discover how you may create your own at home using most of what you already have in your cabinets in my previous article, “Keep a Clean House with Nontoxic Cleaners.”