Chemicals found in plastic bottles, flame retardants, food cans, detergents, cosmetics and pesticides cost the US twice as much as in the EU where the toxins are regulated.
It’s enough to make one’s blood boil. The chemical policy in the United States is so illogical; how does it make sense that we allow toxic chemicals with known negative health effects to persist?
I could rant and rant, but a new study puts the travesty in perspective by applying numbers to it, and maybe the kind of numbers that policy-makers can understand – not deaths, but dollars.
The research comes from New York University’s Langone Medical Center and was published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. The researchers discovered that endocrine disruptors cause more than $340 billion a year in health costs and lost earnings. For comparison, it’s more than double the yearly estimated cost of $163 billion in the European Union.
In matters of chemical policy, the EU operates by means of the precautionary principle, in which ingredients likely to be hazardous can be removed from the market, even if full scientific evaluation hasn’t been completed. When it comes to our health, why isn’t the norm?
“Adults and children in the U.S. carry more industrial chemicals in their bodies than their European counterparts simply due to differences in chemical policies,” Joseph Allen, a public health researcher at Harvard University told Reuters.
“In the U.S. our chemical policy largely follows the approach of our legal system – ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” Allen added. “This is appropriate for criminal justice policy but has disastrous consequences for health when used for chemical policy.”
The chemicals in the study are endocrine disruptors. Found in a wide array of consumer products – think plastic bottles, flame-retardants, food cans, detergents, cosmetics and pesticides. They can interfere with the body’s hormone system and cause all kinds of deleterious developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects.
The researchers looked at blood and urine levels of endocrine disruptors in samples from participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES); and then compared the American data to results from European research. In determining the dollar impact, the direct cost of treatment was considered, as well as indirect costs from of lost productivity or earnings.
Reuters points out some of the startling highlights from the study:
This chemical blend, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) [flame-retardants], is responsible for about 43,000 cases of intellectual disability in the U.S. each year, compared with 3,290 cases in Europe, the researchers estimate.
PBDEs are also tied to the loss of 11 million IQ points each year in the U.S., compared with 873,000 lost IQ points in Europe.
Combined, the costs associated with intellectual disabilities and lost IQ points linked to PBDEs come to $266 billion a year in the U.S., compared with $12.6 billion in Europe.
[Costs are higher in the U.S. in large part due to widespread use of a chemical mixture applied to furniture to make it less flammable that has been restricted in Europe since 2008, Reuters notes.]
Organophosphates – chemicals in pesticides that have been restricted in the U.S. since 1996 – are associated with 1.8 million lost IQ points and 7,500 cases of intellectual disability in the U.S. each year, at an estimated cost of $44.7 billion.
In Europe, where these pesticides are not strictly regulated, organophosphates are linked to 13 million lost IQ points and 59,300 cases of intellectual disability each year, costing a projected $194 billion.
“These findings speak to the large health and economic benefits to regulating endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” said senior study author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a researcher at NYU.
Other diseases and conditions linked to endocrine disruptors and looked at in the study include autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, diabetes, heart and vascular disorders, and endometriosis and others.
Remarkably, the scientists considered only about 5 percent of endocrine disruptors with solid evidence suggesting they cause health problems, the authors note. The costs (and damage) is likely way more.
Until policy makers get the guts to take some action, there are things we can do as consumers to limit our exposure to chemicals – steps that TreeHugger writes about a lot. Trasande even sounds like he’s taking notes from the TreeHugger playbook when he writes of the steps we can take to avoid toxins in consumer products.
“These include eating organic foods, avoiding microwaving food in plastic containers, limiting canned food consumption, and washing plastic food containers by hand instead of putting them in the dishwasher,” Trasande says.
“People can also avoid using plastic containers labeled on the bottom with the numbers 3, 6 or 7 inside the recycle symbol, in which chemicals such as phthalates are used,” he says. “Switching to “all natural” or “fragrance-free” cosmetics can also reduce exposure.”
Either that, or move the European Union.
The following video is about 30 minutes long, and while not connected to the study, gives a comprehensive overview of the thousands of chemicals found in everyday products. A discussion of endocrine disruptors is near the beginning.
See The Lancet for the complete study.