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What are xenobiotics and POPs and how do our bodies deal with them?

What are xenobiotics and POPs and how do our bodies deal with them?

Xenobiotics surround us everyday!  If you have an illness that you can pinpoint to a chemical or environmental exposure, then you know what a xenobiotic is and how it can seriously affect your health.     

  • Xenobiotics have been defined as chemicals to which an organism is exposed that are extrinsic to the normal metabolism of that organism. (Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science).  Since mold produces mycotoxins that are not made in our own bodies, these mycotoxins are xenobiotics to us, as are many man-made chemicals like POPs. (Alcohol is also a xenobiotic).

  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are chemicals of global concern due to their potential for long-range transport, persistence in the environment, ability to bio-magnify and bio-accumulate in ecosystems, as well as their significant negative effects on human health and the environment. The most commonly encountered POPs are organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, industrial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) as well as unintentional by-products of many industrial processes, especially polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD) and dibenzofurans (PCDF), commonly known as dioxins. (Food safety: Persistent organic pollutants (POPs))  POPs are fat-soluable, and tend to accumulate in our fat tissues. POPs are xenobiotics, but not all xenobiotics are POPs. Exposure to POPs has been associated with diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and many other chronic diseases. (Glutathione!)  

Most of these xenobiotics are transformed by enzymes in the liver, and are then eliminated by excretion.  First of all: What is an enzyme?   Enzymes are complex proteins produced by living organisms that act as catalysts in chemical reactions.  Enzymes can either build up or break down.  Enzymes themselves are not consumed.

This is where our genes come in.  “GST” genes are important for detoxification of the body, in that they manufacture those enzymes that facilitate the detoxification reaction.  One of the most important GST enzymes is GSTP1.  

The GST pi gene encodes (provides instructions for building) the enzyme Glutathione S‑transferase Pi (GSTP1), which plays an important regulatory role in detoxification, anti‑oxidative damage, and the occurrence of various diseases.  The detoxification reaction is called “glutathione conjugation”.  (GSTP1 and cancer: Expression, methylation, polymorphisms and signaling (Review))  Following is an example of glutathione conjugation; note that the “SH” site on glutathione (sulfur) is the binding site for the xenobiotic:

Source: The role of glutathione-S-transferase in anti-cancer drug resistance

GSTP1 has a wide range of physiological functions: It is involved in metabolism, detoxification and elimination of potentially genotoxic foreign complexes, metabolizes a variety of carcinogenic compounds, and protects cells against DNA damage and canceration.  However, while GST mediates detoxification from accidental xenobiotics, like exposures to pesticide for example, GSTs have also been implicated in the development of resistance toward chemotherapy agents, especially platinum-based chemotherapy drugs. (GSTP1 and cancer: Expression, methylation, polymorphisms and signaling (Review))

Here are several more genetic terms that will help to understand how GST and GSTP1 work: 

  • Gene expression is how GST directs the manufacture of GSTP1 (for more on how gene expression works, check out this article)

  • Methylation is a chemical modification of DNA and other molecules that may be retained as cells divide to make more cells. When found in DNA, methylation can alter gene expression. In this process, chemical tags called methyl groups attach to a particular location within DNA where they turn a gene on or off, thereby regulating the production of proteins that the gene encodes. (National Human Genome Research Institute)

  • Polymorphism, as related to genomics, refers to the presence of two or more variant forms of a specific DNA sequence that can occur among different individuals or populations. The most common type of polymorphism involves variation at a single nucleotide (also called a single-nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP). Other polymorphisms can be much larger, involving longer stretches of DNA. (National Human Genome Research Institute)

GSTP1 methylation can affect gene expression, inactivating the GST gene.  GSTP1 methylation has been associated with the development or recurrence of prostate cancer (PCa), liver and breast cancers. 

In addition, during detoxification of xenobiotics, GSTP1 may become damaged, causing polymorphism (a variation).  Some polymorphisms are associated with specific cancer types. For example, the genetic polymorphism of GSTP1 may be associated with the detoxification of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in cigarette smoke and exhibits the highest expression in lung tissue.  More polymorphisms of GSTP1 and associated cancer risks are shown in the next table:

Source: (GSTP1 and cancer: Expression, methylation, polymorphisms and signaling (Review)

Therefore, xenobiotics can not only overload the GST detoxification processes, but they can damage GST and the enzymes it encodes, like GSTP1.  Restricting xenobiotics and stress is crucial to keeping this important defense system working optimally!

Here’s a bit more on how these genes detoxify.  Although GST genes do not make glutathione (GSS genes do), they regulate its use.

Glutathione has been described as “the mother of all antioxidants” because it recycles vitamins C and E, which are other antioxidants, and of course it binds and modifies toxins from our environment so that we can get rid of them.  According to Dr. Mark Hyman, “The secret of its (glutathione’s) power is the sulfur (SH) chemical groups it contains. Sulfur is a sticky, smelly molecule. It acts like fly paper and all the bad things in the body stick onto it, including free radicals and toxins like mercury and other heavy metals.” (Glutathione: The Mother of All Antioxidants)

Glutathione (GSH) is a tripeptide molecule consisting of the amino acids glutamate, cysteine, and glycine. It is the most abundant antioxidant in the human body that contains thiol (an organic sulfur compound).  Peptides are chains of 2 to 50 amino acids that are linked together.  For reference, proteins are also chains of amino acids linked together, but these number over 50 and usually more than 100. Here is a visual aid, noting that Glutathione falls under the Peptides category. 

Source: The Difference between Peptides and Proteins

Glutathione exists in two states in cells: reduced (GSH) and oxidized (GSSG).  Oxidized glutathione is actually 2 reduced glutathiones bound together at the sulfur atoms.

Source: Glutathione!

The difference between reduced and oxidized glutathione is that GSH (reduced) is the “recharged” version, while GSSG (oxidized, also called glutathione disulfide) is the “spent” version. GSH is also called “free glutathione” in that it has its sulfur site ready to bind to xenobiotics, while the site on the spent version is not available because it’s stuck to another glutathione molecule. 

The body is constantly recycling glutathione from the oxidized to the reduced version (for more on how this happens, this video is really helpful) .  Healthy cells at rest have a GSH/GSSG ratio >100:1, meaning that there is much more GSH (recharged) available than GSSG (spent).  When cells are exposed to oxidant stress such as xenobiotics, the ratio can drop to 1:10. This is very dangerous, because depletion of GSH and accumulation of GSSG is actually directly toxic to cells, causing their death (apoptosis).  (Glutathione!)  

Glutathione (GSH) production also drops with age and disease. Unfortunately you can’t just “pop a pill” for more GSH (contrary to many medical claims on the internet!). The body, however, can  make its own GSH in the liver with the amino acids cysteine, glutamate, and glycine. The best ways to boost our bodies’ manufacturing of GSH are to eat foods rich in glutathione or its building blocks (amino acids of cysteine, glutamate, and glycine), increasing your intake of vitamin C, and getting enough sleep and exercise.  (10 Natural Ways to Increase Your Glutathione Level)

Here’s a recap about GST, GSTP1, and glutathione:

  • GST is the gene responsible for encoding GSTP1.

  • GSTP1 is the enzyme that regulates the ability of glutathione to bind to xenobiotics.

  • Glutathione is an an enzyme that exists in 2 forms: GSH (reduced) and GSSG (oxidized).

  • GSH is also called “free glutathione” and in healthy cells, exists in a 100:1 ratio with GSSG.

  • Xenobiotics are those chemicals to which we are exposed that come from outside our bodies.  POPs (persistent organic pollutants) are xenobiotics.

  • GSH binds with xenobiotics in the presence of the GSTP1 enzyme.

  • GSSG cannot be used to bind xenobiotics, it first must be converted back to GSH.

  • Stress and xenobiotics are dangerous in that they can cause changes to GST and GSTP1 which affect their ability to detoxify our bodies, making the body prone to cancer.

  • Unchecked stress and xenobiotics also overwhelm free glutathione, causing cell death.

  • We can help restore proper glutathione balance and immune function by limiting stress and xenobiotics, eating the right foods for manufacture of GSH and getting enough sleep and exercise.

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

Cancer may be a case of nature AND nuture: Why it’s time to pay attention to Inflammogens

Cancer may be a case of nature AND nuture: Why it’s time to pay attention to Inflammogens

The New Yorker article “All the Carcinogens We Cannot See” is quite eye-opening.  You’ve probably known people who lived a “bad” life, drinking or smoking or doing drugs, to a ripe old age, and then also a number of “innocent” young victims of cancer.  What’s the rhyme or reason of evading cancer or acquiring it?   This is the question that thousands of scientists engage every day as they test chemicals on bacteria or animals.  In the 1970’s, biochemist Bruce Ames was able to measure that many mutagens are carcinogens: if a chemical or toxin causes a mutation in bacteria, then it’s likely to also be a carcinogen.  Thus, the Ames test for mutagens remains the standard lab technique for screening substances that may cause cancer.  However, there are many chemicals that cause cancer but are not obviously mutagenic, such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), which increases the risk of vaginal, cervical, and breast cancer.  Also, it has been discovered that with or without exposure to mutagens, most people have a small number of mutated genes.  What is the “trigger” that begins cancer growth?

A well-known example is cigarette smoke.  It contains more than 60 mutagens, which are by extension carcinogens. Surprisingly, however, in a 2023 study that examined the characteristic fingerprints of DNA damage caused by cigarette smoke in human lung cancers, ninety-two per cent had the mutations associated with the DNA-damaging substances in smoke. But about eight per cent lacked this kind of mutagenic damage, and clear mechanisms of cancer in between 8-10 percent of smokers is lacking, causing scientists to think that there are missing cancer-causing agents.

Other studies have confirmed that a second agent is necessary to “activate” the mutations into cancerous tumors.  In one study, DMBA, a cancer-linked chemical that was found in coal tar, only caused cancer in a small percentage of the mice that were exposed to it.  However, after adding an inflammatory oil after exposure to DMBA, more than half of the mice developed malignant tumors.  In another study, mice with a powerful cancer-causing gene only developed cancer when they were also plagued with poorly healing wounds, causing chronic inflammation.  It was inflammation that triggered tumors. 

What does this tell us (other than animals do a lot of our dirty work)?  It’s not mutagens alone that cause cancer:  in many cases, malignancies are only activated when another environmental toxin causes chronic irritation that catapults them out of normalcy. “The mutant cells just lie there,” according to Allan Balmain, a cancer geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco.. “It’s the inflammation that awakens them.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of sources of inflammation.  According to the Cleveland Clinic, the some of the most common reasons for chronic inflammation in the body are autoimmune diseases, exposure to toxins, and untreated acute inflammation, as from an infection or injury.  Then there are lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol in excess, obesity, chronic stress and smoking. 

Air pollution also featured prominently in The New Yorker article, and it’s a frequent topic in the news today in expected areas (cities and industrial zones) and unexpected areas (wildfires in the wilderness).  In fact, British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, who are celebrated for determining the primary cause of lung cancer–smoking–also correlated the disease to proximity to major roadways, gasworks, industrial plants, and coal fires, and thus, by extension, exposure to high levels of air pollution.  Since then, it’s been discovered that when lung cancer occurs in people who have never smoked, the malignant cells often carry a mutation in a gene known as EGFR.  Using data from the U.K., South Korea, and Taiwan, researchers found that in each of the three countries, tthe higher the level of air pollution, the higher the incidence of EGFR-mutated lung cancer. This confirms a link between air pollution and nonsmoking-related lung cancer by mutation.  But there is something else in the air pollution besides mutagens, and it is inflammogens.  Again using all mice that were genetically primed to have EGFR mutations, mice who received larger doses of a liquid simulating air pollution (PM2.5) in their lungs, had more tumors.  The PM2.5-treated mice were full of inflammatory cells.  It seems to be the combination of mutation AND inflammation that caused the mutation to develop into cancer.  Looking more closely at the inflammation, macrophages (large cells that eat foreign particles) promoted an immune response by secreting interleukin-1 beta, a potent inflammatory signal,. If the interleukin-1 beta was blocked with an antibody, the effect of air-pollution exposure dissipated.  Accordingly,  immune-deficient mice did not have inflammation and defeated the effects of air pollution.

Whew, that’s a lot of science.  What we can take away is that inflammation could be the invisible criminal accomplice in many cancer cases, as well as in other diseases.  There’s been a big focus on knowing your genetics, and firms like The DNA Company recognize that purposefully changing your lifestyle with better food, exercise, less stress and sometimes specific supplements can mitigate the effects of DNA deficiencies by defeating the accomplice, inflammation.  In this spirit, we hope that whether you get your DNA tested or not, you are aware of the air quality in and outside your home, and do your best to avoid inflammation by ascribing to a healthy lifestyle and less stress.  These include cleaning often with non-toxic cleaners like TotalClean, changing your HVAC filters regularly, using masks and HEPA filters where necessary, and using bi-polar devices  like the Germ Defender, Upgraded Air Angel Mobile or Whole Home Polar Ionizer that can also help purify the air of VOCs and particulates.  (For more information about your immune system at a molecular level and specific ways to build it up, check out our article here).  The answer to disease, like the cause, is two-fold: take the physical steps you can avoid toxins and inflammation, and sort out the mental toxins (stresses) that cause inflammation too.   At HypoAir, we wish you a healthy home and year!

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

Taking precautions: What to do if your home is spared from a fire, but still smells like smoke

Taking precautions: What to do if your home is spared from a fire, but still smells like smoke

We at HypoAir sincerely hope that you and your family have not been forced out of your home by any of the recent wildfires.  Even if your home is spared from fire, if it is in close proximity, danger from lingering smoke particles is a real concern that you should know about and take precautions against.  You may know that smoke is a combination of ultra-fine particles and gasses, both of which can be toxic.  The gasses may be swept away by “airing out” your home or using activated carbon filters, but the particles settle into dust that can be disturbed anytime you clean or even when the HVAC comes on.  

A study was born in the weeks after the Marshall Fire, which occurred in the Boulder area in December 2021.  It spread very quickly and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and buildings.  Those that were near the flames but not burned, like the home of air quality scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, smelled like “the day after a campfire” and had ash on the door and window sills.  (Study finds potentially harmful chemicals lingered in homes affected by Marshall Fire)  Without testing, she did not know whether it was safe for her (or the neighbors who asked) to return to their homes.  So, she became part of a team of expert scientists who tested four homes in the area (including hers) in order to determine what toxins may have been left behind.  

The scientists collected samples of particles of dust in the air and on surfaces in January and February 2022. Elevated concentrations of potentially harmful materials like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were detected in the dust samples.  PAHs are considered carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s chemicals like these that deserve extra precautions in the way residents return to and clean their homes.  

When the scientists set up their equipment in the homes, they took dust samples from windowsills and used monitors to track particulate matter in the air, minute-by-minute.  The floating particles of ash produced by the fire seemed to settle out of the air in these houses within a day or two, but the dust that Wiedinmyer had seen on her windowsills lingered. In February, the researchers took measurements as a six-person cleaning crew entered one of the homes to vacuum and mop.  The concentrations of particles in the air nearly doubled during that time. Overnight in the same house, the team saw airborne particles spike about once every 20 minutes—likely due to the home's HVAC system switching on and off.  (Study finds potentially harmful chemicals lingered in homes affected by Marshall Fire

For this reason, the scientists recommend wearing a mask when you’re cleaning up fire damage, because human activity like cleaning resuspends the dust in the air, making it easy to breathe in.  Also, be sure to change your HVAC filter more frequently during the first few months after cleanup, and only use true HEPA vacuum cleaners, so exhaust from the vacuum cleaner will not blow dust back into the air.  Wiedinmyer herself “aired out” the home for a week before re-entering to clean.  During this time and going forward, a standalone HEPA filter would be very useful to filter particles that are missed by the HVAC system (if you have one!).  Our Germ Defenders, Mobile Air Angels and Whole Home Ionizers help to ionize and agglomerate dust, making it easier for the filters to trap it.

Another part of the aftermath of wildfires is dealing with contamination to drinking water systems. According to NPR for northern Colorado, The fire damaged six public drinking water systems, and toxic chemicals leaked into pipes from damaged homes and into hydrants where low water pressure created vacuums that pulled the compounds into the distribution system.  Although the personnel in these districts were not all clear on how and where to test, they were eager to do so when experts who had managed similar disaster response teams educated them.  Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, has taken part in several water disaster recoveries, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire in California, the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam contamination, and a chemical spill in West Virginia.  In a study he co-authored, he said that although the Marshall Fire response was not perfect, major crisis was averted because authorities did not refuse to test.  (Sadly I think many of us can recall other disasters that did not go so well).

There were a couple reasons that contaminants were introduced into these drinking water systems.  First, when a system loses pressure, toxins like wildfire smoke can get sucked into the distribution system.  Second, overheated plastic pipe can leach benzene and other chemicals for months or even years.  According to Whelton’s research, plastic pipes were primed to leach chemicals by temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit; wildfires can exceed 1,400 degrees.  Thirdly, flushing out the system quickly with clean water is important to prevent smoke and chemicals from reaching damaged pipe, which can act as a reservoir for such toxins.

If your home survives a fire in the future, remember that unseen dangers like carcinogens may still linger and you need to take caution with your air and your drinking water.  Although it seems that authorities in the Boulder area were for the most part very proactive for public health during the Marshall Fire response, it’s usually up to individual residents in wildfire-prone areas to have stores of masks, filters and clean drinking water.  We hope you don’t have to go through such a catastrophe, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

UPDATE:  Another professor, Delphine Farmer from Colorado State University, wrote a followup article explaining smoke and VOC behavior in a test house during the Chemical Assessment of Surfaces and Air, or CASA, study in 2022.   She found that VOCs that entered a home are adsorbed into surfaces and while they may temporarily clear by opening doors and windows (“airing out”), they quickly built up again after ventilation stops, and the house would slowly release those VOCs back out over the next hours, days or even months, depending on the type of VOC.  They found that air purifiers can remove only some of the VOCs that are in the air – they can’t clean the VOCs on your floors or in your walls. They also work only when they’re running, and even then, air purifiers don’t work particularly well to reduce VOCs.

The good news is that basic household cleaning–vacuuming, dusting and mopping with a commercial, nonbleach solution–removed most of the VOCs.  This means that while you’re cleaning for particles, VOCs are also removed.  Check out our article on Tackling Dust in Your Home for our recommendations on appliances and cleaning products to get ‘er done, but don’t forget to add the personal protective gear mentioned above, as well!

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

How healthy is dry-cleaning?

How healthy is dry-cleaning?

We’ve all done it–accidentally machine washed and ruined a “dry-clean only” piece.  It’s so frustrating–what happens in the washer and why is dry cleaning “safe” for these items?  According to Rinse, a dry cleaning and laundering service, “Dry Cleaning can be beneficial for garments made from fibers that don’t react well when exposed to water, like silk and wool. It’s also good for garments that shouldn’t be exposed to the heat of a traditional dryer.”  It consists of pre-treatment to stains, washing in a chemical solvent that is free of water, spin-drying, post-washing stain treatment and press, steam or ironing to make all clothing look new again. 

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many kinds of petroleum-based solvents were used to wash clothes, because they remove stains better than soap and water, with less damage to the fabric.  Perchloroethylene (PERC) is one of several non-flammable solvents created to dry-clean during the petroleum shortage created by WWII, and it became the primary solvent used in the 1940’s through the end of the century.  However, it is discovered to be a respiratory and skin irritant, neurotoxicant, liver and kidney toxicant, and reproductive and developmental toxicant, as well as a probable carcinogen. (frontiersin.org)  Dry-cleaning machines using PERC have evolved to a 5th generation, which is a closed loop of washing, drying and recycling the solvent, so that operator and the environmental exposure to PERC is much lower than the 1st generation.  Despite these advances, residuals from the chemical in cleaned clothes and in the waste process are disturbing; the chemical will be outlawed in 2023 in California.   Alternatives range from n-Propyl Bromide (n-PB), which also has toxic effects, to high-flashpoint solvents, to the safest options, liquid carbon dioxide cleaning and Professional Wet Cleaning (PWC).  PWC uses good old water and detergent in a computer-controlled process.

As consumers, the dangers of residual dry-cleaning chemicals in our clothes may not be apparent, but they are there.  PERC vaporizes from clothing and is released into your home, according to a 2011 study.  Concentrations of PERC also increase as the clothing item is dry-cleaned several times, except for silk, which does not retain PERC.  If several dry-cleaned items are left in your car, levels of PERC can rise well above permitted levels by OSHA for workplaces using the chemical.  This suggests that those who deliver dry-cleaned clothing might have more exposure than even those who process it.

In 2021, 90% of dry-cleaning shops in France still use PERC, and estimates in the US may be as low as 65% (vice.com)  Kings County, Washington has been especially proactive in helping cleaners to switch to PWC.  Education on the machines and the process, as well as financial assistance to purchase new PWC machines has been key to the transition.   It’s certainly a looming deadline for California shops, but Minneapolis already forced the transition and became PERC-free in January 2018 (americandrycleaner.com)

Dry-cleaning has been in a slight decline because of the coronavirus pandemic (less in-office work days with less formal dress) and the development of fabrics that can be successfully laundered at home.  Still, if you don’t live in Kings County, WA, California, or Minneapolis, what can you do to reduce your exposure to PERC?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Familiarize yourself with how to hand wash delicate items, and it may eliminate most of your dry cleaning!  Take these tips from Town and Country Magazine.

  • If you do go for dry clean, air the items out of their bags in a ventilated space away from your home, like the open sunshine or in a carport. 

  • Investigate cleaners that use PWC instead of PERC.  Rinse.com is a delivery service that offers laundry, fold and dry-cleaning to areas in California and New York, and states that none of their cleaners use PERC, however not all of them use PWC because they don’t recommend wet cleaning for all items.  It may be a case of calling and asking “I have this item” and “what can/would your shop use to clean it”?

  • Be wise in purchasing new clothes–avoid “Dry Clean Only” when you can.  “Dry Clean Suggested” is a more flexible option, but “Hand Wash” and “Machine Wash” are definitely preferred!

Actinobacteria: Another danger lurking in Water Damaged Buildings

Actinobacteria: Another danger lurking in Water Damaged Buildings

Avoiding mold and mycotoxins has taken a major share of the spotlight in healthy home discussions, and for good reason, because they can elicit major allergic responses in many people and disabling immune responses in very sensitive people.  However, there is another organism that grows right along with mold in moist environments, and it’s often overlooked even though it can produce the same types of reactions.  Some types of bacteria are unique enough to be in a class of their own, called actinobacteria.  

Here’s a short refresher from an article about bacteria, endotoxins and exotoxins:  bacteria can be classed into two different groups: “Gram-negative” or “Gram-positive”.  These classes are based on a test developed by scientist Christian Gram in 1884, which differentiates the bacteria using a purple stain.   According to webmd.com, bacteria either have a hard, outer shell, or a thick, mesh-like membrane called peptidoglycan.  The hard outer shell will resist the purple stain, and show up as a red color.  These are called “gram negative” because the purple stain did not show.  Bacteria with the peptidoglycan absorb the purple stain much more easily and are called “gram positive”.  The stain also tells many more characteristics about the bacteria and the way it interacts with treatment. 

Going back to actinobacteria (also called actinomycetes), they are a diverse group of gram-positive bacteria, meaning they have that mesh-like membrane called peptidoglycan. However, they resemble molds (fungi) because they are adapted to life on solid surfaces and they can produce mycelium (branching structures) and dry spores like most fungi. Actinomycete spores are known to be important air contaminants in occupational environments, such as agriculture and waste composting facilities, and have recently gained special attention as indicators of mold problems in buildings. They do not belong to the normal microbial flora in indoor air but have been found in buildings suffering from moisture and mold problems. (Characteristics of Airborne Actinomycete Spores)  One class of actinobacteria, called mycobacteria, include the types of bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy.   These actinobacteria require iron for growth, and in the human body, will destroy red blood cells in order to acquire the iron it needs.

Actinobacteria, which occur in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, are among the most common groups of gram-positive microorganisms in nature.  Living in soil, actinobacteria decompose organic matter and display antagonism against other bacteria and fungi, with which they compete for nutrients. Actinobacteria have incredible abilities to survive under extreme conditions in their natural environment and have been found in strongly saline soils, soils with a high content of exchangeable sodium and/or magnesium ions, and heavy clay soil which is submerged by water.  (Discovery of Actinomycetes from Extreme Environments with Potential to Produce Novel Antibiotics).  If they can live in these extreme environments, it’s not too much of a stretch to find them indoors in water-damaged buildings (WDB) and indeed, they thrive there too.  In a 2017 study of an office building in the northeast US which had a history of water incursions via roofs, walls, and pipes, actinobacteria were detected in 74% of dust samples, and thermophilic actinomycetes (unique high-temperature aerobic bacteria) were most predominant (81%) among the three types.   In analysis of building occupants who participated (105 participants out of 136 occupants), the increasing thermophilic actinomycetes levels in floor dust were significantly associated with decreased pulmonary function and increased odds of having symptoms reflecting possible granulomatous disease, particularly shortness of breath on exertion, flu-like achiness, and fever and chills.  Prevalences of the three granulomatous disease-like symptoms among the occupants were similar to those reported in another study of a large office building with eight hypersensitivity pneumonitis and six sarcoidosis cases, a long history of moisture incursions, and high fungal and bacterial contamination.   

Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, an expert on mold illness and CIRS, published the paper Exposure to Actinobacteria resident in water-damaged buildings and resultant immune injury in Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome in 2021.  In it, he details some of the interesting facts about actinobacteria that many people do not know:

  • Geosmin is a VOC that accounts for the characteristic musty smell found in many WDB, and many actinobacteria also produce this VOC, creating the logical fallacy that the smell found in WDB buildings is only due to mold growth.  
  • Certain species of actinobacteria live on humans: on our skin and in mucous membranes and genitourinary tracts.  He denoted these HH actinobacteria (for human habitat), as opposed to SH actinobacteria (for soil habitat).   The interior of WDB are usually colonized by HH actinobacteria much more than SH actinobacteria; this is not the same for fungi, because WDB are easily colonized by outdoor (SH) fungi.  (Airborne Bacterial Communities in Residences: Similarities and Differences with Fungi)  
  • Dr. Shoemaker developed indices for exposure to actinobacteria showing differences in subsequent immunoreactivity in Chronic Immune Response Syndrome (CIRS) patients for actinobacteria from human skin carriage, HH, as opposed to SH actinobacteria.  
  • He theorized that the “toxin” that causes the immunoreactivity is not exotoxins, like normal gram-positive bacteria, but extracellular vesicles of 20-150 nanometer size that carry potentially inflammatory molecular signaling compounds from inside the cell wall to the outside. Vesicles are known to contain a variety of charges including nucleic acids, lipoproteins, enzymes, and toxins.  

“Better Health Guy” Scott Forsgren, Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner interviewed Dr. Larry Schwartz, an indoor air expert with a specialty area is assessing, testing, and creating solutions to make homes and workplaces environmentally safe for patients with inflammatory illnesses, about actinobacteria.  According to Dr. Schwartz, one can get treated for symptoms of CIRS (of which there are 37), but not necessarily get to the root cause.  However, if their blood is tested by GENIE (Genomic expression: Inflammation Explained), root causes for CIRS can be discovered.  “We found over 2,000 patients that have taken the GENIE test. About 42% of them are being triggered by Actinomycetes. The next largest percentage was endotoxins. The least percentage was the mycotoxin.”   (podcast: Episode #171: Actinomycetes with Larry Schwartz, BSME, MBA, CIEC)  Some background on GENIE:  this test was developed by Dr. Shoemaker and Dr. James Ryan, a molecular biologist, who have collaborated on genetic testing since 2011. GENIE is a gene expression assay composed of 188 genes that is performed on a single blood specimen. It reveals gene expression abnormalities found most often in patients facing CIRS illnesses. Typically it's done repeatedly, once before treatment for CIRS, after the first eleven steps of the treatment protocol, during or after VIP treatment. (vasoactive intestinal polypeptide). VIP is a naturally occurring human neuropeptide which affects multiple pathways in the brain and throughout the body, and it’s given as a low-dose nasal spray to benefit patients with severe CIRS.  GENIE results will show if the patient's metabolism is improving as their treatment progresses.

Dr. Schwartz’ research exposed that the major “factory” of actinobacteria (he calls them “actinos” for short) is the bedroom, because of the time we spend under covers (warm temperature) and the amount of skin cells that are deposited in the bed.  He also characterizes showers, crawlspaces and basements and drains as places where actinobacteria tend to multiply because of constant moisture.  He has a bedding protocol for cleaning bedsheets, and drain “protocol” on how to clean drains on a regular basis so that actinobacteria will not continue to proliferate in them.  (check out minute 59:17 of the podcast for these protocols).  Dr. Schwartz also advocates for use of HEPA filters, PCO devices (like the Air Angel Mobile) and bipolar devices (like the Mold Guard).  We would also add that the use of bathroom exhaust fans and humidity control are paramount for lowering relative humidity.  

Dr. Schwartz acknowledged that similar to the way pathogenic mold makes mycotoxins,  many pathogenic species of actinos often create a chemical called mycolic acid, which may be the allergy trigger for CIRS patients.  Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker also found that mycolic acids played a role in inducing T-cell responses (Exposure to Actinobacteria resident in water-damaged buildings and resultant immune injury in Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome)  According to the physicians with which Dr. Schwartz consults, although actinos can trigger inflammation and CIRS, they are not necessarily triggering histamines, and mast cell activation, because mast cell activation is primarily a histamine-driven effect. 

As for testing, EnviroBiomics is the only lab known by Dr. Schwartz that does next generation sequencing (NGS) to determine levels of actinos in home samples. Using special lab equipment called NGS processors, they give the in-depth degree of data on the speciation of actinos and their concentrations.  Dr. Schwartz can analyze the results of these test reports, in conjunction with at-home or virtual visits, to determine what may be exacerbating CIRS symptoms.  In one case, a client who lived in a farmhouse on 3 acres had CIRS, but the cause was not in his home.  It turned out that a neighboring property had a dilapidated barn with rotting hay in it (“farmer’s lung” disease comes from the actinobacteria in rotting hay), and correction of the ventilation in his home significantly improved his symptoms.  

Now for the good: despite its ability to cause illness, scientists and researchers have discovered how to harness actinomycetes for healing purposes.  Antibiotics are a class of molecules used for the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections.  These bioactive compounds are produced naturally from different species of fungi and bacteria, but the most attractive class of microorganisms that are able to produce these secondary metabolites are actinobacteria, in particular, actinomycetes. The importance of this order is due to their abilities to produce different classes of antibiotics in terms of chemical structure and mechanisms of action. Moreover, different genera and species of actinomycetes are able to produce the same class of antibiotics and, in few cases, the same chemical compound.  Thanks to antibiotics and the research developed in this field, many infections are now treatable, and life-quality/life expectancy are better than in the past.  (Actinomycetes: A Never-Ending Source of Bioactive Compounds—An Overview on Antibiotics Production)  

In short, actinobacteria can be confused with mold because of many similarities: how they grow, the environmental conditions they prefer, what they smell like, and what symptoms they cause in humans.  The good thing is that regular cleaning of areas like the bedroom, bathroom and drains to remove dust and allergens also removes food for actinobacteria.  In addition, a whole-home approach also examines the ways that toxins from actinobacteria inside walls and even outside can enter the home via leaks and negative air pressure.  When cleaning protocols are introduced and these air pathways are addressed, actinobacteria numbers start to dwindle and the homeowner’s health increases.  Sometimes it takes a trained eye to discover where they are flourishing, but by knowing their preferred habitat and via testing, they are not completely “in the dark” anymore! 

Photo by Ozgu Ozden on Unsplash