Being super clean may cause leukemia in children, says scientific review

Genetics isn't all to blame.

What causes leukemia in children? Your extra-clean home, maybe.

As parents, keeping things in the home super-clean is second nature. However, a new study says that being over-the-top clean can cause Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL, a common blood cancer in children. 

What Is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia?

Acute Lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, is a cancer that mainly affects white blood cells. There are many debatable causes of ALL, ranging from paint exposure to chemotherapy.

Although ALL is rare and curable, it is potentially fatal. This is why scientists are working hard to learn more and find preventive measures.

How Overly Clean Environments Can Cause Cancer: The Scientific Review 

Science has documented the link between being too clean and serious illnesses. 

Prof Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London,  a Fellow of the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences, recently wrote a review that gives us a better understanding of the causes of ALL.

His review analysed over 30 years of research, including his own, on many scientific aspects of childhood leukemia. His findings led to an undeniable conclusion: that ALL may be caused by a societies getting cleaner. 

He explains these findings in a press briefing in London, saying that “ALL has a clear biological cause, and is triggered by a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed. ”

what causes leukemia in children

Perhaps consider against stocking up on too many cleaning products.

So How EXACTLY Does an Overly Clean House Cause Leukemia?

To understand the link between cancer and the immune system, it’s best to get some background, first.

Put simply, when the body recognises a bacteria, virus or fungus, it defends itself by starting inflammation. This is a restorative process which causes the infected tissue to appear red and swollen, but left alone, can lead to serious damage.

However, at birth, the immune system isn’t ready to handle these intruders. The body needs an infection to learn how to react and kill them. An underdeveloped immune system that fights an infection will “panic, ” behaving abnormally.

Now remember that overly-clean places don’t have any bacteria, so children growing up in such an environment may have an immune system that remains underdeveloped. When a pathogen invades a child’s body, say, by air, the immune cells overreact, causing too much inflammation.

Too much inflammation can be harmful in many ways. It leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and other health conditions.

Constant exposure to infectious microorganisms can damage the body. However, exposure to germs once in a while isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they can help the immune system learn how to respond to pathogens. This, in turn, helps build a mature immune system.

A developed immune system is better equipped at tackling viruses and bacteria, resulting in less inflammation. And this lessens the risk of many diseases in the future. 

How Overly-Clean Places Can Cause Leukemia: The Process

Prof Greaves’ has found that there are two stages that lead to ALL.

The first involves children who already have irregular immune systems before birth. In the womb, a process causes genetic mutations that make certain cells prone to becoming cancerous. Five percent of all children are known to have irregular immune systems, but this condtion normally doesn’t cause cancer.

However, a small number of these children are at risk of a second genetic mutation. At this point, their immune systems aren’t behaving normally, and being in an overly-clean environment doesn’t help proper development.  

What usually happens is that a common, non-life threatening infection such as the flu, sparks a series of other genetic changes to the already abnormal cells. This may lead to ALL. 

History supports the findings of this research, with records showing peaks of childhood leukemia six months after flu epidemics. Furthermore, the same results have been observed in the lab. Scientists found that mice grown in “an ultra-clean germ-free environment ” suffered from ALL when subjected to common infections. 

It’s Not Your Fault, Parents

If you have a child who is suffering from leukemia, please be assured that it is not your fault as a parent. Prof Greaves’ even says that parents are “in no way” guilty if their child develops leukemia. Rather, he advises parents to be “less fussy about common or trivial infections.”

Other experts agree. Prof Charles Swanton, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, says that parents and medical professionals don’t know how to prevent ALL. “We want to assure any parents of a child who has or has had leukemia, that there’s nothing that we know of that could have been done to prevent their illness,” he says.

Is It Possible to Prevent ALL?

Prof Greaves suggests tuning a baby’s immune system by letting them get exposed to bacteria that aren’t dangerous, in order to minimise the occurrence of childhood diseases like ALL. 

So should parents just ignore the chores? Unfortunately that’s not the case. The key word is balance. 

Yes, keep your homes clean — it helps prevent diseases. But just don’t be pedantic about it.

Rolling in the mud once in a while is fine — but do be careful of wounds or cuts. It might be hard to understand this balance, so here are some tips to help you give your child the best.

what causes leukemia in children

Don’t panic if this happens once in a while, parents.

Tips on Building Immunity in Kids

  • Encourage your children to be active outside instead of keeping them indoors. 
  • Provide children a variety of food in their diet. For instance, you can mix in some oats and mashed-up beans with their rice cereals. 
  • Let your kids play with dirt, as explained in a previous article. Don’t forget that being too clean can also disrupt your child’s natural drive to explore. 
  • Don’t stop breastfeeding infants, and do so for as long as possible. Breastmilk supplies a wealth of useful things to the baby, including:
    • maternal antibodies to protect babies
    • beneficial microorganisms, or probiotics, which stop pathogens from taking up nutrients in your body and decreases the risk of disease
    • nutrients that are important for the child’s immune system to develop, especially in the first six months of the child’s life; it can also prevent cases of diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses. 

Essentially, with all these things, you are exposing your children to harmless bacteria and other microorganisms.  

Don’t Forget Common Sense!

Dr Beh Suan Tiong, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in Thomson Medical Centre, advises the following: 

  • Do incorporate hygiene practices when cleaning the house or handling children’s food, but don’t get too extreme in maintaining a super-sterilised environment. As Thom McDade, director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern Universty,  puts it, “I ‘d like to see a recalibration toward common sense. You don’t have to wash or sanitise everything.”
  • Avoid congested places, like underground trains stations. You don’t know what diseases people are sick of, and they can spread it to you or your child unintentionally.
  • Don’t approach people with contagious diseases.

We at theAsianparent hope that this article has been helpful in better informing parents on what causes leukemia in children. Parents, it is our hope that you can make better informed decisions by reading this article.  

References: The Irish Times, ICR, CNN, Cancer Research UK

Also read: How to strengthen my child’s immunity

Why you should let your kid play in dirt

Dirt and germs are not so bad for kids

How a healthy gut supports your child’s immunity, mood and brain development

Is your behaviour causing your child to fall sick?