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Can Playing in the Dirt Help Prevent Childhood Leukemia?

Good news for kids who like to play outside. According to new research, a healthy and diverse microbiome may be key to preventing childhood leukemia. And one of the best ways to encourage “gut” health is to get plenty of exposure to dirt—preferably “healthy” dirt, not dirt whose microbial activity has been killed or compromised by toxic agricultural chemicals.

Leading cancer researcher Professor Mel Greaves of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research in London theorizes that the onset of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—the most common form of childhood leukemia—may be prevented if a child is exposed to common bacteria and viruses very early in life. Also known as microbes, these bacteria and viruses can be found in most natural environments, including in healthy soil and in human breastmilk. 

Most cases of childhood leukemia have high remission rates—up to 90 percent. But conventional treatments for the disease include chemotherapy, radiation and other cancer drugs. And those can create life-long negative side effects. 

In a paper recently published in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Cancer, Greaves dismisses the idea that electromagnetic radiation or environmental chemical exposure is the cause of childhood leukemia. Instead, he provides compelling evidence that sterile, ultra-clean environments, which are common in industrialized countries, may be linked to the disease.

Greaves suggests that a complex genetic predisposition already present in the unborn fetus may be activated by a founding event, such as an infection caused by the common flu virus. This event is believed to trigger further mutations that lead to the development of white blood cell cancer. 

However, exposure to beneficial microbes found in healthy soil, human interaction (including contact with other children), breastfeeding and being born via a natural, vaginal birth as opposed to Cesarean, may offer protection against childhood leukemia in those with a predisposition to the disease. 

In other words, childhood leukemia, the cause of which has baffled scientists, could actually be preventable

This so-called “priming” of the immune system may explain why 99 out of every 100 kids who are genetically predisposed to childhood leukemia don’t actually contract the disease—and why rates of ALL are higher in technologically advanced developed countries compared to undeveloped countries, which tend to have less effective sanitation systems and therefore a higher (and arguably healthier) rate of microbial exposure.

Understanding the microbiome 

Modern-day science is just beginning to understand the complexity and various functions of the human microbiome, an individualized microbial cloud consisting of trillions of microbes such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa. 

Often referred to as our “second brain,” the microbiome is responsible for regulating many processes including mood, digestion and both immune system function and brain function. A growing body of research reveals the role of the microbiome in preventing chronic and life-threatening diseases. 

For example, a study published by the American Association for Cancer Research found that a less diverse microbiome is linked to multiple diseases, including allergies, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and neuropsychiatric disorders. 

A more recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that babies who were breastfed had a more diverse microbiome and lower risk of developing obesity later in life compared to infants primarily fed formula. 

Exposure to important microbes early in life “train the immune system to prevent allergies,” as well as “help us digest and extract energy from food, which can influence weight gain,” according to the study’s authors.

Monsanto’s Roundup shown to disrupt the microbiome

As science continues to unravel the mysteries of the microbiome, we also gain a better understanding of what happens when that intricate microbial cloud is disrupted by exposure to pesticides such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. 

Studies show that glyphosate damages the gut microbiome of rats, as well as beneficial microbes found in soil.

A recent animal study published by the Ramazzini Institute found that glyphosate can have adverse effects on sexual development, genes and beneficial gut microbes at doses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims are “safe.”

While the long-term health effects of glyphosate on the human microbiome remain unknown, scientists warn of cancer risks that could affect a vast number of people due to the massive amounts of the weedkiller being sprayed on agricultural crops and food. 

Want to help get Monsanto’s Roundup banned for good? Learn more here.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.

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