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Chemical exposure linked to billions in health care costs

Many crops, like this one in California, are treated with pesticides linked to neurological effects in studies of children. Photo: Andy Sacks, the Image Bank/Getty
Elizabeth Grossman, National Geographic, Mar 6 2015 - 12:00

Exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is likely leading to an increased risk of serious health problems costing at least $175 billion (U.S.) per year in Europe alone, according to a study published Thursday.

Chemicals that can mimic or block estrogen or other hormones are commonly found in thousands of products around the world, including plastics, pesticides, furniture, and cosmetics.

The new research estimated health care costs in Europe, where policymakers are debating whether to enact the world's first regulations targeting endocrine disruptors. The European Union's controversial strategy, if approved, would have a profound effect on industries and consumer products worldwide.

Linda Birnbaum, the leading environmental health official in the U.S. government, called the new findings, which include four published papers, "a wake-up call" for policymakers and health experts.

"If you applied these [health care] numbers to the U.S., they would be applicable, and in some cases higher," says Birnbaum, director of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The researchers detailed the costs related to three types of conditions: neurological effects, such as attention deficit disorders; obesity and diabetes; and male reproductive disorders, including infertility.

The biggest estimated costs, by far, were associated with chemicals' reported effects on children's developing brains. Numerous studies have linked widely used pesticides and flame retardants to neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones, which are essential for proper prenatal brain development.

The researchers concluded that there is a greater than 99 percent chance that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are contributing to the diseases, according to the studies published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Tip of the Chemical Iceberg

The estimate was limited to a handful of chemicals commonly found in human bodies: bisphenol-A (BPA), used in hard plastics, food-can linings, and paper receipts; two phthalates used as plasticizers in vinyl products; DDE, the breakdown product of the banned insecticide DDT; organophosphate pesticides, including one called chlorpyrifos used on grain, fruit, and other crops; and brominated flame retardants known as PBDEs that were extensively used in furniture foams until they were banned in Europe and the United States.

BPA, DDE, and the phthalates were examined for their links to obesity and diabetes, phthalates for male reproductive effects, and flame retardants and organophosphate pesticides for neurological effects.

Together, these represent about 5 percent of endocrine disruptors—or "the tip of the proverbial iceberg," says Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. He was the main study's lead author.

"The chemicals were chosen based on the quality and amount of available evidence," says Bruce Blumberg, a University of California, Irvine, professor of developmental and cell biology and co-author of the obesity and diabetes paper.

Evidence linking the pesticides and flame retardants to neurological effects was the strongest, showing "near certainty of causation," Trasande wrote in a summary.

The researchers also reported that chemicals contribute "substantially" to obesity, diabetes, and male reproductive disorders. Those findings were based on previous research, largely in the United States and Europe, that tracked the exposures and health of people over extended periods of time.

The estimated health care cost associated with chemicals in plastics is at least $28 billion per year, according to the researchers.