This part of your home is putting you at risk for developing ALS

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 18, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A University of Michigan study has found that many household chemicals are associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) risk and progression.

  • The exposure chemicals associated with ALS included gasoline or kerosene, gasoline-powered equipment, lawn care products, woodworking supplies, pesticides, and paint. 

  • Keeping these products in an attached garage increases ALS risk.

New research out of the University of Michigan has added to the growing conversation about how environmental exposures affect amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) risk and progression. Researchers looked at how exposures in residential settings—to everyday products people keep in their homes and garages, like kerosene or pesticides—impacted ALS risk.[]

ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, affects about 7.7 people per every 100,000 in the US. White males between the ages of 60 and 69 are more commonly affected. That said, women are also impacted (especially at older ages) as well as people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Military veterans are also more likely to be diagnosed with ALS than the general public. One theory posits that veterans are at greater risk of developing ALS due to specific environmental exposures—a point echoed in the study.[][][][] 

To identify residential exposures—referred to as ‘exposome’—associated with ALS risk, survival, and onset, the study included 367 participants with ALS and 255 control participants. The team found three top ALS risk factors: gasoline or kerosene, gasoline-powered equipment, and lawn care products. Other risk factors associated with ALS included woodworking supplies, pesticides, and paint. 

"This begs the question: is it the activities that associate with ALS risk or the exposures to related products? This requires further research,” first author Stephen Aaron Goutman, MD, Director of the Pranger ALS Clinic and Associate Director of the ALS Center of Excellence at the University of Michigan, told ScienceDaily.[] 

While the researchers concluded that residential exposures can be modified to decrease ALS risk, their findings were clear: “Latent profile analysis indicated that storage of these chemical products in both attached and detached garages increased ALS risk. Although residential variables were not associated with poorer ALS survival following multiple testing corrections, storing pesticides, lawn care products, and woodworking supplies in the home were associated with shorter ALS survival using nominal p values. No exposures were associated with ALS onset segment.” Storing products in an attached garage showed greater risk than storing them in a detached garage. It is thought that airflow from the attached garage into a home’s living space increases the risk. []

What does this research mean for clinicians?

Aaron Burberry, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, says that ALS-specific studies like this one may eventually help clinicians better support patients. 

“We still don't know why motor neurons—and not other neurons in the body—are selectively lost in ALS,” Burberry says. That said, “identifying environmental risk factors that are associated with ALS and not other neurodegenerative diseases gives us clues about unique vulnerabilities of the motor system. Beyond avoiding compounds that are generally bad for our brains…clinicians may ultimately suggest specific lifestyle changes for people with a familial history of ALS,” he adds.

“Our research identifies that certain toxins, as well as behaviors that may relate to toxin exposure, [are] associate[d] with a higher odds of having ALS,” Dr. Goutman tells MDLinx.“This study also underscores the importance of participation in this type of research so we can better understand environmental risks of disease.”

To continue exploring these connections, Dr. Goutman says that he and his team have launched a new study that will examine the long-term impact of environmental exposures on health, particularly neurodegenerative risk, for people who work in production, manufacturing, chemical, and metal occupations, as well as those with a family history of ALS.

A European study published in 2020 estimated long-term occupational exposures associated with ALS and found “an increased risk of ALS in men exposed to multiple solvents, with the greatest exposure of influence being methylene chloride.” The authors cited cleaning agents, adhesives, sealants, paints, and some rubber and plastic products as the most common industrial solvent exposures.[] 

Senior author Stuart Batterman, PhD, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, stresses that patients should limit their exposures to these kinds of chemicals.While workplaces may limit employee exposure by providing masks and gloves, he says, people at home may not have or use protective equipment as frequently. “This is also critical in our homes, where we spend most of our time, and where even low-level exposures can build up over time,” Dr. Batterman explains. 

Dr. Goutman stresses the importance of identifying the factors that contribute to ALS onset, even if the cause—or causes—remain unknown, as these factors can provide targets for therapeutic engagement and prevention efforts. “Our hope is that the identification of the set of exposures that most strongly relate to the future risk of developing ALS will facilitate strategies to reduce ALS risk,” he adds.

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