Today I’m writing about two articles that are essentially about what we are doing to ourselves as a species. This post is not an op-ed piece: this is a simple statement of facts.
The first article, out of Washington State University, is about the correlation between household chemicals and the gut microbiome.[i] These scientists measured levels of ubiquitous compounds in the blood and urine of 69 toddlers and preschoolers, and also analyzed the fecal microbiome. The chemicals they looked for included phthalates (which are used in detergents, plastic clothing like raincoats, shower curtains, soaps, shampoos, hair sprays) and other chemicals (PFASs) used in stain- and water-repellent fabrics, carpets, furniture, nonstick cooking products, polishes, paints, and cleaning products. These are all products to which children are exposed on a daily basis through the air and dust in homes – especially as young children crawl and play on the floor and also put things in their mouths.
The results were not pretty: “When the researchers looked at the levels of fungi and bacteria in the gut, they found that children who had higher levels of the chemicals in their bloodstream showed differences in their gut microbiome.” Those children with higher PFASs had a reduction in the amount and diversity of gut bacteria; those children with high levels of phthalates had a reduction in fungi populations. What really has the researchers concerned is that rarer species of bacteria were especially hard hit: “These microbes are perhaps not the main drivers and may have more subtle roles in our biology, but it might be the case that one of these microbes does have a unique function and decreasing its levels may have significant health impacts…”
Another interesting finding: the children who had high levels of chemicals in their blood also had species of gut bacteria which are used to clean up toxic chemicals in the environment – which are not normally found in humans! The researchers hypothesize that this is the gut biome trying to fix itself. The point though is that biome depletion, and the subsequent increase in inflammatory illness, is a very serious issue plaguing the industrialized world…and our household environments most certainly is adding to the problem.
And speaking of man-made biome depletion: this is a little off topic but – not. An interesting – if not terrifying – article in Smithsonian Magazine describes research at the University of California, Berkeley, looking at how climate change is destroying the world’s populations of parasites.[ii] Isn’t this a good thing, you ask? Sure – if you want the entire world’s ecosystem to collapse by 2070. Apart from the crucial role they play in regulating the immune system – which I’ve talked about endlessly on this blog! (see here and here as just 2 of almost 70 examples), they also play a critical role in regulating the ecosystems of the world. The article points out a couple of interesting examples (of thousands): the red grouse bird, when infected by the nematode Trichostrongylus tenuis, emit a scent that helps predators find them more easily, controlling their populations. Periwinkle snails, infected with Cyptocotylelingua, eat less algae, leaving more of it available for other species. Should this shift, their will be a domino effect along the Atlantic coasts, with potentially thousands of species being adversely affected.
So how grim are the findings? Beyond grim. Dire, actually: “Even under the most optimistic scenarios, roughly 10 percent of parasite species will go extinct by 2070. In the most dire version of events, fully one-third of all parasites could vanish. “
How will this effect we humans? “Parasites and their hosts have often evolved together over many years to maintain a delicate balance. After all, parasites usually have little interest in killing their hosts… since that would mean losing their homes and sources of nutrients.”
Our human ecosystem has already been dramatically altered by extinguishing our macrobiomes but if the world at large starts to abruptly lose these organisms, I can’t even imagine the upstream effect: “But when a known parasite goes extinct, it creates new open niches in an ecosystem for other invasive species of parasites to exploit. That can create opportunities for new encounters between parasites and hosts that aren’t familiar with each other, and haven’t yet developed that non-lethal relationship.”
The conclusion – we change our view of parasites: they should …”be protected alongside their hosts.”