Are Household Cleaners Making Your Kid Fat?

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Scientists have found that cleaning chemicals alter gut microflora in babies, increasing risk of overweight.

How you clean your house could be affecting your child's propensity for weight gain. A study published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has found that common household cleaners containing disinfectants alter the gut microflora in babies and make them more prone to overweight and obesity.

Researchers analyzed the microflora of 757 infants who were 3-4 months old, followed by their body mass index (BMI) at one year. They interviewed parents to find out what kinds of cleaning chemicals were used in the house -- disinfectant, eco-friendly, or detergents -- and how often. In the words of lead author Anita Kozyrskyj, a pediatrics professor at the University of Alberta,

"We found that infants living in households with disinfectants being used at least weekly were twice as likely to have higher levels of the gut microbes Lachnospiraceae at age three to four months. When they were three years old, their body mass index was higher than children not exposed to heavy home use of disinfectants as an infant."

Lachnospiraceae is a non-pathogenic bacteria commonly found in human guts, but an abundance of it, combined with decreased levels of Haemophilus (another common bacteria), has been linked to diabetes in children, insulin resistance in adults, and higher rates of obesity in piglets. In this particular study, Haemophilus was found to be lowered by exposure to disinfectants, along with Clostridium. Detergents and eco-friendly cleaners did not have the same effect.

While the study authors acknowledge that there could be other influential factors, such as parents who use eco-friendly cleaners being more likely to embrace other healthy behaviors in the home, this does add important evidence to the argument that conventional household cleaners are hardly benign when it comes to human health. As the authors stated in their conclusion,

"Antibacterial cleaning products have the capacity to change the environmental microbiome and alter risk for child overweight. Our study provides novel information regarding the impact of these products on infant gut microbial composition and outcomes of overweight in the same population."

Fortunately this is something that can be helped quite easily.

- Switch to eco-friendly cleaners at home or make your own. There are plenty of simple, effective, and thrifty recipes here on TreeHugger. Read: 20 natural cleaning hacks to replace harmful chemicals and 3 ways to clean with vinegar, spit and booze

- Embrace the grubbiness of childhood. Don't keep an immaculate, disinfected house and don't over-bathe your child. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against bathing more than three times per week if a child is less than a year old. As I wrote in a previous post, "The American Academy of Dermatology says that 6- to 11-year-olds need to bathe only once or twice a week, 'when they get dirty, such as playing in the mud; after being in a pool, ocean, or other body of water; when they get sweaty or have body odor.'"

- Take your infant outside. Infants spend more than 80 percent of their time indoors, which makes them highly vulnerable to poor air quality; or, in scientific language, "The home microbial environment is especially relevant to the maturation of their gut microbial ecosystem." Put your child outside to nap as the Scandinavians do. Prioritize outdoor playtime and walks on a daily basis. Air out your house regularly, especially when you're cleaning, vacuuming, or disturbing dust. Read: How to remove the toxic dust in your home