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We tend to think of our beds as a refuge from the outside world, where one can safely relax and sleep. Well... not quite. A recent study conducted in Israel analyzed chemicals released from youth and infant polyurethane mattresses and found that all the mattresses outgassed chemicals of concern (such as formaldehyde, toluene, benzene). These chemicals are called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) - they are chemical compounds released from products (e.g. mattresses) as vapor into the air, which we then breathe in. It is known that some VOCs have harmful health effects (e.g. eye and nose irritation, neurological effects, cancer) at high levels long-term. The researchers also found that a person's body heat on the mattress actually increases release of chemicals.

The one infant mattress tested also released flame retardants into the air. Of course no one really knows what breathing in low levels of these chemicals night after night for years does to us, if anything. But it should concern us. Keep in mind that during sleep our mouths and nostrils are very close to the mattress surface, so we are definitely breathing in whatever chemicals our mattresses emit. Researchers referred to the air around our beds as our sleeping microenvironment. And yes, our bedding (sheets, etc) also emit chemicals that they were treated with during manufacturing, such as formaldehyde in wrinkle-free sheets.

From Science Daily: Mattresses could emit higher levels of VOCs during sleep

Hundreds of household items, including furniture, paint and electronics, emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which at high levels can pose health risks. Now, researchers reporting in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology have measured the emission rates of the gaseous compounds released by several types of polyurethane mattresses under simulated sleeping conditions, finding levels of some VOCs that could be worrisome for children and infants. However, so far there is no evidence of adverse health effects.  ...continue reading "Mattresses Emit Chemicals"

Want to prevent your children from having allergies or asthma? A recent study adds support to increasing evidence that growing up on a farm, or living among multiple pets in the first year of life is protective against developing allergies and asthma. This is because exposure to lots of animal and outdoor soil bacteria in early childhood is good for the developing immune system. The study, which was conducted by Finland's National Institute  of Health and Welfare, carried this line of work further and found that this type of beneficial farm microbial exposure could be duplicated in non-farm homes.

They found that children's risk of developing asthma decreased as the similarity of their home's bacteria became more similar to that of farm homes. The researchers analyzed living room dust from homes and found that certain types of outdoor soil microbes were beneficial for preventing asthma. They found higher levels of these bacteria (and archaea, another microbe) in homes where people wore their outdoor shoes in the house, as well as 3 or more children, and increased moisture in houses. The types of fungi found in the dust of farm and non-farm houses didn't seem to matter. The researchers mention that the same kind of protective (for asthma) results of soil microbes has also been shown in mice.

Additional thoughts reading this: The study results can be interpreted as playing and crawling outdoors is definitely beneficial to children's health, especially young children. Exposure to soil microbes! And, of course, having pets. But wearing outdoor shoes indoors is problematic in areas with high lawn and garden pesticide use (e.g. suburban NY and NJ!) because studies show the pesticides get tracked indoors. This same problem occurs in areas with high lead levels (around older homes) or other heavy metals.

From Science Daily: Farm-like indoor microbiota may protect children from asthma also in urban homes   ...continue reading "Outdoor Soil Microbes In the Home and Asthma"

Did you know that over 90% of all Americans have pesticide residues in their bodies? How do we know this? From studies and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which does biomonitoring of large groups of Americans in order to measure pesticides (and other toxic environmental chemicals) in their bodies. Biomonitoring tells us the "body burden" of toxic chemicals, usually by measuring them in our blood and urine, but also in hair, breast milk and meconium (an infant's first feces gives a measure of prenatal exposure to pesticides). Biomonitoring studies have detected hundreds of different chemicals (including many pesticides) in people, and shown that every single person has a mixture of many contaminants in their body.

The bad news is that we don't really know what all these chronic low level mixtures of pesticides are doing to us. Studies are finding health problems (e.g. various cancers, endocrine disruption, neurological and reproductive problems, even semen quality) with pesticide exposures - especially during pregnancy (the developing fetus), and during childhood. We're talking about pesticide exposures of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

How do pesticides get into us? Pesticides get into us from inhalation, through the skin, and through ingestion (foods, water). Studies find that conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are good ways to ingest pesticides, and with more of these foods eaten, the higher the pesticide residue levels in the body. Unfortunately, as more and more pesticides such as fungicides, glyphosate and 2,4-D are used on crops, our exposures and levels of these pesticides in our bodies are increasing.

When our homes, our gardens, and lawns are treated with pesticides, we also get exposed to pesticides. We track them from the outside, and children (and pets) play in them on treated lawns. We are exposed to pesticide "drift" from neighboring properties. Pesticides used inside the house stay in the house dust (they don't break down easily in homes). Pesticides are even found in rain and fog. Scary, isn't it?

Can we lower the levels of pesticides in our bodies? Absolutely yes. Eat as many organic foods as possible - the levels of pesticide residues in the body (as measured in the blood and urine) will go down rapidly. Study after study shows this. A study even found an association with eating organic foods and a lower cancer rateDon't use pesticides on lawns. Think of weeds as "native grasses" and clover as beneficial. When dealing with indoor pest problems, use least-toxic Integrated Pest Management.

A nice discussion of this is in a recent article by journalist Liza Gross. Excerpts from The Nation: More Than 90 Percent of Americans Have Pesticides or Their Byproducts in Their Bodies

...continue reading "Almost All Americans Have Pesticide Residues In Their Bodies"

Study after study is finding that having pets in early childhood or living on a farm with lots of exposure to animals is associated with a lower incidence of allergies. Pets with all their "germs" (bacteria and other microbes) appear to have beneficial effects on children's developing immune systems. One study from the Univ. of Gothenburg (in Sweden) actually found that the more pets a child lives with in the first year of life, the lower the incidence of later allergies in children. The results were dose-dependent - with each additional pet, the incidence of allergies is a little lower.

The numbers are amazing - allergies decreased from 49% in those with no pets to zero in those with five or more pets. The researchers suggest that there is  a “mini-farm” effect, with exposure to a number of cats and dogs protecting against all allergy development (animal, food, and pollen allergies). What an about face in medical views in a few decades! It used to be viewed that if you wanted to prevent allergies in children, then avoid pets such as dogs and cats. Hah!

From Medical Xpress: Pet-keeping in early life reduces the risk of allergy in a dose-dependent fashion

A team of researchers at the University of Gothenburg has found that when infants live with pets, they grow up to have fewer allergies and other diseases. In their paper published on the open access site PLOS ONE, the group describes their study of datasets that held information on children's health and whether they had lived with pets as infants, and what they found.  ...continue reading "Exposure to Pets in Infancy Reduces the Risk of Allergies"

Two years ago a study was published showing good results in 18 children with autism who received fecal transplants. Fecal transplants involves giving stool (along with all the microbes in the stool) from a healthy donor to a recipient. After getting fecal transplants, the children (ages 7 to 16) had significant improvements in their gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation, and stools), autism related symptoms, and in their gut microbes.

But how did they do long-term? The short answer: great. In fact, the children continued to improve over the next 2 years. Most of their gut symptoms continued to improve, their autism symptoms continued to improve, and their gut microbes kept improving over time - with significant increases in bacterial diversity (considered good), and with more Bifidobacteria and Prevotella. A professional evaluator found an average 45% reduction in core autism symptoms (language, social interaction and behavior) at two years after the initial treatment (compared with before the original treatment).

It has long been known that many persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience chronic gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, and research shows that children with ASD have distinctive gut microbiomes (as compared to neurotypical children). Researchers believe there is a link between the gut and brain (the gut-brain axis), so a therapeutic approach could be to "modify" the gut microbes. Which is what the researchers did - in a 10 week process they call Microbiota Transfer Therapy (MTT). First they gave antibiotics, then a bowel cleanse, a stomach-acid suppressant, a fecal transplant (FMT) followed by many days of low purified doses taken orally.

From Science Daily: Autism symptoms reduced nearly 50 percent two years after fecal transplant

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every 59 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, up from one in every 150 in 2000.  ...continue reading "Reductions In Autism Symptoms Two Years After Fecal Transplants"

Many of us have concerns over the fact that people are constantly exposed to endocrine disruptors (chemicals that disrupt hormonal systems) in many common household and personal products. Even the vinyl flooring found in many homes  contains phthalates, which are endocrine disrupting chemicals. In the past year several studies have looked at vinyl flooring in homes and whether the chemicals in the flooring outgas into the air and then get into people living in the homes. The answer is YES - the chemicals in vinyl flooring do get into people living there, and they can be measured in urine (in the breakdown products of phthalates called metabolites).

Since research shows that endocrine disrupting chemicals have health effects, then the question is: Do chronic low levels do anything to people? Especially worrisome is, are they having an effect on the developing fetus when pregnant women are exposed to them and they get into the body? The following 2 studies looked at flooring, but keep in mind that we are exposed to phthalates in many, many products - e.g., plastic shower curtains, plastic food containers, some personal care products, household products. The problem is that the pthalates migrate out of the plastic products - they don't stay in the product. In the case of vinyl flooring - one can say that there are phthalate emissions from the flooring! And of course it gets into household dust.

Numerous studies found that phthalates (the phthalate metabolites) are routinely found in people of all ages - throughout the world. It can be measured in our blood (serum) and in our urine. Studies find them in breastmilk and also in amniotic fluid. Research finds associations associations between exposure to several phthalates and various effects on human health, including reproductive effects.

The following are two complementary studies. Study 1 looked at vinyl flooring (called PVC flooring in the article) in homes (in the kitchen and bedrooms), and found that phthalates get into pregnant women, and can be measured in the urine. Study 2 (from Duke University), found that chemicals children are exposed to in the home from vinyl flooring and the sofa (flame-retardants) can be measured in their blood and urine. The researchers took all sorts of samples from homes and children over a 3 year period and found evidence in the children of exposure to phthalates, organophosphate esters, brominated flame retardants, parabens, phenols, antibacterial agents and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

So we have proof that these chemicals are getting into us. We can't avoid them totally, but can lower our exposure levels - look for upholstered furniture without flame retardants (read the label!), and don't install vinyl flooring (wood and tile floors are OK).  ...continue reading "What’s Getting Into You From Vinyl Flooring?"

Today's topic: BIRTH. Two recent studies have results that question some current medical practices, which are when to cut the umbilical cord, and hospital vs home birth differences in the baby's gut microbes.

The first study makes a case against the current practice of cutting the umbilical cord immediately after birth. University of Rhode Island researchers found that delaying umbilical cord clamping for more than 5 minutes transfers iron rich blood from the placenta to the baby (resulting in about a 30% increase in blood volume). This resulted in babies at 4 months of age having higher iron storage (ferritin) levels and increased brain myelination. Myelin is a fatty material that wraps around nerve cell fibers - think of it as insulation of the brain's wiring.

The second study found that birth at home results in a more diverse microbiome (microbial community) in the baby at birth and one month later - when compared to babies born in hospitals. This study was conducted in the Hudson Valley region of NY state. All babies were born vaginally and were breastfed. Hospital born babies had decreased levels of some bacteria and increased levels of other bacteria (e.g. Clostridium - with other studies finding that higher levels in children is associated with an increased risk of asthma). It was suggested that certain hospital practices may be causing this (sterile drapes, antibiotics, etc.). 

From Medical Xpress: Study shows benefits of delayed cord clamping in healthy babies

A five-minute delay in the clamping of healthy infants' umbilical cords results in increased iron stores and brain myelin in areas important for early-life functional development, a new University of Rhode Island nursing study has found.  ...continue reading "Birth, Cord Clamping, and Some Microbial Differences"

The following is a really nice article about endocrine disruptors (chemicals that can interfere with the body's hormonal system). Journalist Hillary Brueck writes about where they are found (all around us!), some of the many negative health effects, and about NYU physician and researcher Dr. Leonardo Trasande and his new book: "Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future ... and What We Can Do About It." Also, some things we can do to lower our exposure to endocrine disruptors.

By the way, once again Europe is ahead of the US in dealing with this problem. Excerpts from Business Insider: A toxic-chemicals expert is sounding the alarm about 4 cancer-linked chemicals that could be making us sicker and fatter

Through the course of a single day, your hands, mouth, and body come in contact with countless pieces of paper, plastic, fabric, and furniture. You probably don't think about the chemicals these substances might harbor, or consider that they have a drug-like effect on health. But some do. They can make metabolisms slow down, subtly lower IQs, contribute to ADHD in children, and mess with sperm counts in men.

They're called "endocrine disruptors," and they're around us all the time. The chemicals change how our bodies work by shifting the way hormones operate, according to Leo Trasande, a pediatrician and public-health researcher at NYU Langone Health. "Hormones are the basic signaling molecules in our body that take on so many actions for practically every organ system," Trasande told Business Insider. "And endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals that scramble those signals, contributing to disease and disability."

In his new book, "Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future ... and What We Can Do About It," Trasande lays out the four big categories of endocrine disruptors he's most concerned about, based on evidence from scientific studies and observations in his patients. They are: Bisphenols, like BPA, which are often found in the linings of aluminum-canned food and drinks and on cash-register receipts. Brominated flame retardants that are in some carpets, furniture, and clothing. Synthetic pesticides on food. "Plasticizer chemicals" called phthalates that show up in plastic food packaging, lotions, and cosmetics.  ...continue reading "New Book Warning Us About Endocrine Disruptors"

Once again research finds that endocrine disruptors are associated with health effects - this time with earlier puberty in girlsEndocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body's endocrine (or hormone) systems and can produce all sorts of negative health effects, including all sorts of reproductive problems in both males and females. Phthalates, parabens, and phenols (all used in common everyday products) are examples of endocrine disruptors.

The researchers asked the question: Is a baby's exposure before birth or exposure around the time of puberty (peripuberty) to phthalates, parabens, and phenols (which are found in personal care products) associated with the timing of when he or she starts puberty? In other words, does the mother's exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy have an effect on the fetus, which then has an effect years later on the child's puberty? And how about peripubertal exposure? The answer is a strong YES for girls, and minimal effect on boys (but boys did have earlier genital development with propyl paraben exposure).

What is scary is that almost all women (and men) are exposed to these chemicals - which can be measured in the urine. Studies find these chemicals in over 96% of American women. What to do?  One can't totally escape these chemicals, but one can really minimize exposure by reading labels and avoiding personal care products that list phthalates, parabens, phenols, as well as Triclosan (found in some anti-bacterial soaps). Avoid products that include "fragrances" or "scents" (those have a multitude of chemicals in them, including endocrine disruptors). Avoid air fresheners, dryer sheets, scented candles, room deodorizers, essential oils (lavender, tea tree oil). Buy "unscented" or "fragrance free" products.

The good news is that once a person avoids these chemicals, the levels in the body go down. So it's worth the effort minimizing exposure to them. By the way, animal studies find numerous reproductive effects from these chemicals, including timing of puberty. From Medical Xpress:

Chemicals in personal care and household products linked to earlier puberty in girls

Chemicals that are widely used in personal care and household products are linked to girls entering puberty at earlier ages, according to findings from a long-running study of mothers and children published today. The study in Human Reproduction, one of the world's leading reproductive medicine journals, found that chemicals such as phthalates, parabens and phenols were all associated with earlier puberty in girls, although there was no similar association observed in boys.   

...continue reading "Personal Care Products and Puberty"

Pregnant women have been advised to keep their consumption of coffee and other caffeinated beverages (tea, sodas, cocoa, energy drinks), and chocolate containing foods to a minimum for decades. Currently the American College of Obstetrics recommends that women consume less than 200 mg of caffeine (from any source) per day during pregnancy. This is less than 2 cups of regular coffee  or 4 cups of regular black tea. But a recent  study's findings suggest that the levels should be kept much lower.

The study of 941 mother/baby pairs in Ireland found that each 100 mg increase of caffeine per day was associated with a lower birth weight, shorter length of pregnancy (gestational age), shorter birth length of the baby, and smaller head circumference of the baby at birth. The strongest associations between those who consumed the most caffeine (when compared to those who consumed the least) was with lower birth weight. The researchers think this occurs because caffeine crosses the placenta easily, but during pregnancy there is a slowed metabolism of caffeine (so it takes longer to get it out of the body). Similar results have been found in other recent studies. [On the other hand, for not pregnant women - coffee and tea are linked to all sorts of health benefits - here, here.]

From Medical Xpress: Caffeinated beverages during pregnancy linked to lower birth weight babies

...continue reading "Keep Caffeine To A Minimum During Pregnancy"