Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

The Cost of Inaction

Every time there’s a debate over efforts to protect people from environmental health dangers, the folks facing new regulatory demands point out in great detail what it will cost in lost profits, higher prices to consumers and reduced productivity. Those arguments deserve to be weighed in the balance, but what about the other side of the scales?

When it comes to reforming our broken chemicals regulation system, there’s important data out there. It comes from numerous studies from a variety of academic and government researchers, and it’s impossible to add them up into a single number. But the data leave no doubt that a truly effective system to protect the public, and especially the young, from harmful exposures would have huge payoffs – in lower health costs, a reduced burden of disease, higher intelligence – and greater overall productivity.

Now that Congress is getting serious about acting on bills to fix that broken system, let’s do just some of the numbers.

There’s no doubt that chemical exposures begin even before we come into the world. Studies commissioned by Environmental Working Group have detected nearly 300 chemicals that were present in the cord blood of infants at the moment of birth. We cannot know at this point which of these substances poses significant risks, but we do know that from that moment on we encounter more contaminants in the air, food, water, even mothers’ breast milk. And for some of these, we can make meaningful links between exposure and later health and developmental problems in children, who are the most vulnerable among us because of the ways our bodies develop.

As far back as 2002, a major study led by pediatrician Philip J. Landrigan at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine calculated that chemical pollution was responsible for childhood cases of lead poisoning, 30 percent of asthma, 10 percent of neurobehavioral disorders and 5 percent of childhood cancers. His team then estimated that the costs of dealing with this disease burden came to $55 billion a year, a figure that equaled 3 percent of total use health care costs at the time.

Let’s put that on the scales.

In 2001, a Canadian economist took a look at the costs of neuro-developmental disease and came up with a figure of $81 billion to $167 billion a year. As much as half of that, he calculated, may well be the result of toxic chemical exposures. That would total up to $83.5 billion a year.

Let’s put that on the scales.

Mercury is one of the most notorious threats to healthy neurological development. In 2005, another team from Mount Sinai estimated that the loss of intelligence and productivity from childhood poisoning by mercury alone carried a cost of $8.7 billion a year. And mercury is just one of 201 chemicals known to be neurotoxic to humans.

Let’s put that on the scales.

(And that’s not all.)

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