Clean Freaks, Look What You Could Be Doing to Your Kids

This 30-year study by a leading expert suggests a startling link between a spotless environment — and a really lousy illness

Attention, clean freaks: Your well-intentioned efforts to shield your kids from “dangerous” germs could be killing them.

The good news here is that acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood cancer, may be preventable, as the U.K.’s Telegraph reported earlier this week.

The bad news is that it may be challenging to get parents to take the steps necessary to make that happen — not because those steps are expensive or dangerous, but because they mean intentionally allowing your children to be exposed to common microbes.

The very idea of this makes clean freaks shudder. It may be natural to assume that keeping children away from people or environmental conditions that could make them ill should be a top priority.

But the facts are clear. Keeping your home extra clean and limiting exposure to other infants and children, particularly during the first year of life, can set your child up for cancer.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but that is what the data analyzed by professor Mel Greaves of London’s Institute of Cancer Research suggest.

A 30-year study by Greaves, Britain’s leading leukemia expert, determined that vulnerable children — the 1 percent born with a certain genetic mutation — are put on a path to leukemia when their immune systems aren’t “primed” in the first year of life by exposure to ordinary germs.

Greaves’ research helps explain the paradoxical relationship between the prevalence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in advanced, affluent societies and the illness’s frightening 1 percent a year increase, Science Daily reported. Furthermore, research by Greaves debunks theories positing that ionizing radiation, pollution, electricity cables, electromagnetic waves, or man-made chemicals are responsible.

What he found was similar to what scientists have discovered about Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and allergies: Prevention is tied to “priming” a child’s immune system in the first year of his or her life.

Related: As Spring Settles In, the Home Cleaning Wars Heat Up

Without the immunity afforded to children whose immune systems are primed early on, their bodies overreact, in a sense, when eventually exposed to ordinary “bugs” like influenza. The malfunction puts their tiny bodies’ natural, infection-fighting systems into overdrive — creating an overabundance of white blood cells to fight the infection, The Telegraph reported.

Thankfully, most children with ALL (about 85 percent) survive the cancer in which their bone marrow creates too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), according to the American Cancer Society.

Very simple steps like breastfeeding and the attendance at day care or other groups in infancy, though, may prevent a genetically vulnerable child later in life from experiencing the ravages of chemotherapy and other painful treatments.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.