Monthly Archive for March, 2013

Eczema, detergents, and bat white-nose syndrome?

When I originally wrote SolveEczema.org, I always understood that a medical study or publication would be necessary to bring the ideas into the medical mainstream.  I did the site because I wanted to help as many people as possible in the meantime.  

I have also always realized there are other implications to these ideas beyond eczema, but didn’t feel in a position to write about them.  I was moved recently by reading a Science News story about bat white nose syndrome, which is so lethal, the word “extinction” is being bandied about.  I spent weeks composing an email to a respected bat researcher who is on the forefront of trying to save these beneficial creatures.  I’m sure this is going to seem like it’s coming from left field, so it’s unlikely to make an impact.  But as with writing the SolveEczema.org site in the first place, I had to try.  

I’m posting the letter here, edited for clarity, as it again discusses some of some of the ideas underlying SolveEczema.org.

A.J. Lumsdaine

Little brown bat
Credit: Missouri Dept of Conservation

Dear Dr. Reeder,

I have followed your work on bat white-nose syndrome in lay publications like Science News. I have for many years been concerned that something like this could happen to bats because of an unrecognized environmental influence that, if at issue, I’m surprised took even this long to cause such devastation.

I have to ask you to please bear with me while I explain.  There are so many preconceived notions to overcome about what I am about to say, there isn’t really an easy way to say it.

For 8 years now, I have run a noncommercial website with a novel approach to eczema and allergies that helps families ameliorate or eliminate their children’s eczema and other atopic manifestations like asthma without any treatment, by getting to the environmental cause.  Yes, I realize bats don’t get eczema, but please bear with me.  The site has been used by people all over the world, including doctors for their own families, and has inspired a green cleaning book.  Last year alone, even though I don’t do any advertising or optimization, the site had nearly 40,000 unique visitors and 130,000 page views/360,000 hits, plus many thousands more on the associated blog.  Around 80% of the visits are from bookmarks and direct links, only 20% from search engine links, meaning most visits are from people referring the information to each other and returning themselves.

from Sammysskin.blogspot.com

Eczema from detergents,
plus infection Credit: sammysskin.blogspot.com

If you want to see a well-written, well-documented anecdotal demonstration of this, a mom in Georgia has been blogging about using my website to help her once severely eczematous son lead a normal life without treatment (that’s him on the right before she found my website):  http://www.sammysskin.blogspot.com  Again, this does relate to bats, please bear with me.

Eczema, asthma, and allergy rates have risen precipitously in many nations around the world since WWII, affecting nearly every other child in some hotspots. Dogs and cats, by the way, face a concurrent increase in eczema and other atopic manifestations like allergies.  Most mainstream medical researchers acknowledge that even though there appears to be a genetic susceptibility, given the rapid rise, and how those who move from geographical regions with less eczema to regions with more eczema acquire eczema at the higher rates, the cause must be primarily environmental.

Normal skin, no treatment

Sammy’s skin returns to normal
Credit: Sammysskin.blogspot.com
Used with permission

People are using my website to not only eliminate their eczema, but also their asthma, allergies, and dry skin, in the way the underlying basis predicts.  The underlying problem is the way modern synthetic detergents — which are dramatically more hydrophilic and oleophilic than the surfactants (soaps) used by humans for thousands of years prior — affect the skin barrier, causing excess water loss and thinning of membranes.  The reason detergents cause such dramatic effects is not because, as is traditionally believed, washing products strip the skin of oils.  In my observation, it’s because residues that persist on the skin directly increase the permeability and cause excess water loss as a result, even just those residues that migrate from contact with clothing washed in detergent, or detergent-laden dust.  Ingested detergents on dishes and even in processed foods, and inhaled detergents in dust (which is predominantly skin cells and lint in modern indoor environments, in other words, full of detergents) affect lung and gut membranes as well.  The surprise was that ingested detergents also affect skin membranes.  In my experience, the eczema is expressed proportionally to permeability increases.

Everyone, not just those expressing eczema, appears to be affected and experiences degradation of the skin barrier and other membranes.  Only some people, especially children whose skin is naturally more permeable and absorbs more detergents (and proportionally so), experience the eczema more readily.  Detergents also facilitate antigen penetration of membranes and thus overall antigen load, and can negatively impact sensitive membrane healing times.

It is my belief — and I realize these are all just my ideas but they do happen to lead to real solutions for many, many individuals who could not find those solutions in standard approaches on the subject — that the expression of eczema is, under normal environmental conditions and in the absence of these modern exposures, a “healthy” signal from the immune system to the conscious brain when faced with too much allergen/antigen in the environment, under that immune system’s particular conditions at the time, in the same way that pain serves the nervous system (mostly as a warning to the conscious brain).  The classic interpretation of allergy is that the immune system becomes confused and attacks the body, but my interpretation is that allergens being similar to pathogens to the immune system, require more energy to differentiate between them.  If the immune system can “tell” the conscious brain to offload allergens to better and more accurately face a microbial threat, for example, allergy could confer a survival advantage.  Aeroallergens typically produce respiratory symptoms, contact allergens cause skin symptoms, etc.  There is a roughly linear relationship between eczema rates and atopy by nation, and in societies where there is very little of both, the rates of eczema can be very, very small, i.e., the triggering of that signal is uncommon and could be beneficial.

In other words, I believe the eczema itself is a signal that some people express, under certain genetic and physical conditions.  Eczema isn’t a problem that affects one person and never the next, there is a continuum, where more and more people are affected as the environmental cause increases.  Everyone has the potential to express this signal.  In severe atopic dermatitis, the inputs, feedback, skin barrier, immune response, and expression of the signal are all abnormal and out of control because of modern environmental influences, overwhelmingly, I believe, detergents.  The signal is expressed for some people as certain thresholds are crossed, for more and more people as the exposures increase.  Remove those influences, and people can be completely normal, without treatment of any kind.  In order to accomplish that, typically a whole household must make the changes, and inevitably, everyone in the household experiences surprising benefits — most notably to skin but also allergy — not just the person who had eczema.

Healthy Indiana Bat
Credit: Andy King/USFWS

Please continue to bear with me, this is absolutely relevant to bats.  It’s very important to realize that there can be very substantial physiological effects from very tiny exposures.  And in the presence of small amounts of water — sweat, for example, or other membrane surface dampness or condensation — the effect on permeability is dramatically amplified.

In the course of using the website to eliminate eczema, if properly implemented, it is a universal experience that everyone in a household undergoes a beneficial change in their skin, even if they don’t have eczema or atopy.  Over the course of about two months, the skin becomes completely different:  thicker, more supple, and less dry.  Most people are eventually able to wash with soap and stop using moisturizers.  This happens for anyone, for people who use the site just to eliminate dry skin.

Little brown bat with white nose syndrome

Little brown bat with
white nose syndrome
Credit: USFWS

It’s clear, too, from empirical observation, that many people with eczema are affected by fungal organisms (and sometimes bacterial) while the skin is compromised, and those areas must be treated to kill the fungal organisms before the skin will completely heal.  Research (with no cognizance of this detergent issue) also shows that people with eczema are more susceptible to infections on affected skin than people with skin conditions that also disrupt the skin, like psoriasis.  Research with detergents on sensitive eye membranes show they can substantially increase healing times.

Since fungal cells are more like mammalian cells than they are even like bacterial cells, and those fungal cells can replace mammalian cells, it’s necessary to be extremely careful in treating those “infections” or colonizations because if the fungal cells die off all at once, the result could be an alarming and even more compromising loss of skin, such as sloughing off of large surface areas and bleeding depending on how affected it is.  If antifungal treatment is ramped up very, very slowly over time, though, die-off is minimized and normalization of the skin can be achieved over time without the risks associated with sudden die off.  Fortunately, fungal organisms tend to grow slowly, so this process works better with fungal organisms than you might expect with bacterial.

Gray bat

Gray Bat
Credit: USFWS

Here’s why I believe this is important to bats and specifically to your work:  First of all, the obvious:  bats’ wings are mostly skin.  Bats (and frogs) live at that land-water/wet-dry interface, in other words, where they would constantly be affected by the small amounts of water that amplify the detergent effect on membranes I described above.  Although bats to my understanding stay in dry parts of caves, they do live in cool, dark, damp places where fungal organisms can be very opportunistic if a modern influence were to so fundamentally compromise bats’ evolved defenses.  In other words, bats and frogs would in theory be most affected by detergent pollution, the proverbial “canaries in the coalmine”.  It’s interesting that in Australia, Roundup was banned until the maker removed, not the poison, but the detergent in it which was killing frogs.

Foam from aquatic pollutants.
Credit: Eurico Zimbres

Detergents are ubiquitous outdoor environmental pollutants now, especially in aquatic environments.  Their use has been on the rise outdoors as well as indoors in recent decades.  They are readily absorbed (attached to, really) by living membranes.  Bats in particular would be susceptible to exposure, as bats eat a lot of insects, obviously, and presently virtually all pesticides and herbicides for large-scale use are mixed and sprayed with detergents in order to reduce surface tension and spread the active ingredients more evenly.  New biological controls intended to reduce poison use and highly target certain bad bugs without harming the good ones, if sprayed with detergents (as is almost certainly the case), may be having the unintended consequence of exposing bats to more ingested detergents as they consume non-targeted insects that have detergents on them.  Bats could also outright come into contact with sprays or dusts, or detergents in water, and it doesn’t take much.

If detergents affect bat membranes the way they do human skin – and I see no reason they wouldn’t – detergents would both degrade bat membranes (thinning the wings) and make them more susceptible to fungal colonization.  Ingesting detergents also appears to cause eczema and membrane degradation in human skin — difficult-to-correlate membrane degradation even in humans who do not express eczema — and can do so in very, very small quantities.  Although other mammals may not express eczema, which as I believe is an evolved signal/adaptation and not the direct effect of detergent contact irritation, the underlying basis for the skin barrier dysfunction would almost certainly extend to other mammals, whether they express eczema or not.  Since humans and presumably other mammals use endogenous surfactants in critical functions of life, including to control skin membrane permeability, it makes sense that exogenous detergents could throw a monkey wrench in this adaptation.  It’s also very possible that there is no adaptation that would allow for a survival advantage to bats by expressing this signal of eczema as there would be for larger mammals.  In other words, there is no reason to believe bats would experience any benefit from eczema as humans and perhaps even their pets would, so any corresponding genes would have died out long ago.  Nevertheless, bats (and frogs) would experience negative impacts to their membranes from significant exposure to exogenous detergent sources.

I want to reiterate that ingested detergents, even in small quantities, can cause surprisingly significant physiological effects.  The amount of detergent that penetrates the skin of a banana or shell of an egg from normal processing practices, if ingested, is enough to cause patches of skin changes in susceptible infants.  These are some of the most minor influences in a home today, in the most susceptible group — I am just pointing out that if other influences are effectively controlled, in the most susceptible (babies), even such minor influences can have visible effects.  How much more detergent are bats undoubtedly consuming and contacting relative to their body weight and skin surface these days?

I have witnessed infants go from clear skin to bubbly, itchy, severe-looking rash in 20 minutes just from contact with the clothing of an adult who was substantially detergent-free except for face wash or moisturizer containing detergents, with no direct skin-to-skin contact.  I have seen this even from an adult, in similar circumstances, simply leaning over a susceptible infant, without any direct contact.  If these children are removed from the exposure and washed immediately with ordinary soap (see my site for how “soap” is defined, very important) to remove detergents, reversal of even a severe rash to normal skin (provided the infant has been living in a substantially detergent-free environment already) can be just as rapid and stunning.

I think in order for researchers to truly figure out whether it’s possible to help the bats they are studying to recover, researchers probably need to remove that environmental influence from their labs and persons completely.  If researchers are not detergent-free, they are producing detergent-laden dust that would affect creatures as tiny as bats, with already compromised membranes, in ways most people could never imagine.  Understanding these influences from the detergent-eczema arena could shed light on how and why bats are being affected, and how to help them in new ways.  It’s not as difficult as it might sound to achieve results, but it’s necessary to really understand and these are my own novel ideas, not yet in the mainstream of eczema research.  But they are helping a great many people worldwide in the way the underlying ideas would suggest.

I want to propose to you that this line of inquiry is worth looking into, because if detergents are indeed an unrecognized factor in worldwide frog and bat population crashes, rescue of bats may be more effective, and the long-term solutions could be straightforward, if not simple.  People making newer biological controls for targeted insecticides may simply need to take care to use only surfactants which are no more hydrophilic than typical alkaline soaps, for example.

In one interview I read recently, you are quoted as saying, “For a long time, a lot of us — myself included — said fungal infections don’t kill mammals, so that can’t be what’s killing the bats.  But it turns out that because of the bat’s unique hibernation cycle and the nature of the fungus, it does kill them.  The big question now is:  Can we prevent extinction?”  You may be surprised to learn of a growing body of research discussing new kinds of fungal susceptibilities, colonizations and diseases in humans, especially children, because of modern influences.  Like you, researchers believed these microorganisms had no role in human disease — until a variety of new influences like chronic use of steroids or antibiotics — and I would personally add, detergents — created new susceptibilities especially in vulnerable populations.  Given what I have learned over the years about detergents and eczema, I think it’s highly likely that detergent pollution plays a central role in susceptibility of bats to fungal diseases.

Over the years, I have occasionally sent letters like this to researchers without response.  It’s very likely my letters just end up in spam folders, as I expect this one is likely to.  So I am posting it on my blog as well, in hopes that one of my readers may have a bat researcher in their lives with whom they can share it.  This letter also happens to explain the underlying concepts again which, if nothing else, also helps my readers.

I am moved by the specter of the extinction of these beneficial creatures; I hope this letter proves useful to you.  Thank you for taking the time to consider my input.  I wish you all the best in your work to save bats from this urgent threat.

Sincerely,
A.J. Lumsdaine

http://www.SolveEczema.org
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This work by A.J. Lumsdaine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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