Common chemicals cost U.S. billions every year
Exposure to chemicals in pesticides, toys, makeup, food packaging and detergents costs the U.S. more than $340 billion annually due to health care costs and lost wages, according to a new analysis.
The chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, impact how human hormones function and have been linked to a variety of health problems such as impaired brain development, lower IQs, behavior problems, infertility, birth defects, obesity and diabetes. The estimated economic toll is more than 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The findings, researchers say, “document the urgent public threat posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Published last month in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal, the study was co-authored by Pete Myers—founder of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.
Costs were estimated by looking at exposures, then projecting 15 medical conditions linked to the chemicals and the associated health costs and lost wages. The findings are built upon calculations made by the Endocrine Society, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. A similar study conducted in Europe found about $217 billion in annual costs due to exposure to these compounds.
The much higher cost in the U.S. “is due to a major difference in policy and regulation,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor and researcher at the NYU School of Medicine and senior author of the study.
The U.S. public has greater exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, due in part to stringent fire-safety rules. These compounds are added to furniture foam and electronics to slow the spread of flames. In Europe, pesticides are the main cost driver. Both flame retardants and certain pesticides can impact brain development when unborn babies are exposed.
Trasande noted the U.S. Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 requires consideration of children’s safety before a pesticide is approved for use in farming. No such policy exists in Europe. Conversely, Europe has been much more proactive in tackling a particularly concerning group of flame-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).
PBDEs are the worst offenders in the U.S., accounting for nearly two-thirds of the estimated health problems, including annually causing about 11 million lost IQ points and 43,000 additional cases of intellectual disability, all to the tune of $268 billion.
Pesticide exposure—the second most costly chemical group in the U.S.—causes an estimated 1.8 million lost IQ points and another 7,500 intellectual disability cases annually, with an estimated cost of $44.7 billion.
The researchers also looked at common chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA), used in polycarbonate plastics, food tin cans and receipts; and phthalates, found in food containers and cosmetics.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents chemical manufacturers, slammed the new report, alleging that Trasande and co-authors “demonstrate a casual indifference toward scientific principles, yet a dogged pursuit of headlines.” The council said the research was speculative and the conclusions are drawn from “cherry-picked” data.
Trasande countered that estimates are on the conservative side. Researchers calculated the health-related costs from just a fraction—less than 5 percent—of known endocrine-disrupting chemicals, he said.
“We also didn’t focus on chemicals already banned, such as persistent organic pollutants,” he said. Those compounds, which include DDT and PCBs, remain common in the environment and in human blood despite being off the market for years, even decades.
“Given that [persistent organic pollutants] are known to also contribute to diabetes, obesity and adverse neurological outcomes, that’s another source of underestimating,” Trasande said.
Trasande added that the researchers “significantly discounted” the disease numbers, wanting to reflect those people where chemicals played a role rather than total people with the disease.
Philippe Grandjean, a renowned environmental health researcher and professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said the study doesn’t confirm whether the health effects are due to endocrine disruption or if other toxics play a role. However, he said in an emailed comment, “we must seriously take into regard adverse health effects and not just ignore them while calling for more evidence.”
“Of course it would be great to know more, but my prediction is that the calculated costs to society will increase substantially once we get better documentation on … additional substances and additional adverse effects,” said Grandjean, who was not involved in the study.
Trasande said the study highlights the need to address endocrine disruptor exposure in the United States, especially as the country updates the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.
The 2016 updates to the act, which regulates both existing and new chemicals, contain no mention of endocrine disruption, Trasande said. Chemicals should be screened for any potential impacts to human hormones before they hit the marketplace, he added.
“The cost of required testing is likely to be small when weighed against the $340 billion in costs we have identified as being related to exposure to [endocrine disrupting compounds],” the authors wrote.
While many of these toxics linger in the body for a long time, people can take steps to avoid exposure.
“We can ask questions about flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds when we buy rugs and furniture, and choose products without these substances,” Grandjean said. “We can choose to avoid tuna and other large predatory species of fish, and we can choose organic fruits and leafy vegetables.”