Exposure to chemicals released by plastics, metal cans, furniture, detergents, cosmetics, and pesticides are affecting our health and our economy, according to a new study. We may not notice these chemicals on a daily basis—or ever, for that matter—but scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center say they’re costing the United States $340 billion a year in health-care costs and lost earnings.
This staggering estimate takes into account more than 15 medical conditions associated with endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including increased rates of neurological and behavioral disorders, male infertility, birth defects, endometriosis, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers, as well as lower IQ scores.
The analysis also estimated that exposure to these chemicals contributes to 1,500 estimated cases of autism and more than 4,400 cases of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) a year.
These chemicals include bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly used in the lining of tin cans; phthalates, found in plastics and cosmetics; polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used in flame-retardant products like furniture; and pesticides such as chlorophyrifos and organophosphates.
Specific health risks for these chemicals vary, but they are all known to be endocrine disruptors—meaning they can damage the body’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones involved with many other organs and physiological processes.
These include “everything from how our brain develops to how we maintain a good balance of body fat, from preventing diabetes to basic reproductive functions,” says lead investigator Leonardo Trasande, MD, associate professor of epidemiology.
These chemicals are found “all across our daily lives,” says Dr. Trasande, and many people don’t realize they’re ingesting them on a regular basis. They can leach into food that’s sold in tin cans or heated up in plastic; soak into skin when lotion, perfume, and make-up is applied; and inhaled as tiny dust particles as products such as furniture, electronics, and children’s toys are used and break down.
Dr. Trasande and his colleagues say their research is the first U.S. assessment of the costs associated with low-level but daily exposure to these chemicals. The massive toll amounts to more than 2.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, they wrote in the The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.
To get to these numbers, they looked for the presence of these chemicals in blood and urine samples in 5,000 volunteers taking part in long-term nationwide study. Computer models were then used to project how many and what types of health issues could be attributed to chemical exposure, and to calculate estimated health costs and lost income for each disease.
While the analysis showed that all endocrine-disrupting chemicals were dangerous, two types really stood out: Highly toxic pesticides and flame-retardant PBDE chemicals accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total disease burden, mostly from neurological damage to unborn babies.
Specifically, annual PBDE exposure was estimated to account for 11 million lost IQ points in children, an additional 43,000 cases of "intellectual disability," and an associated disease burden of some $266 billion. Pesticide exposure was estimated to cost 1.8 million lost IQ points and lead to 7,500 more disability cases each year, with total health costs of $44.7 billion.
Phthalate exposure was also estimated to contribute significantly to health issues, including 5,900 cases of obesity, 1,300 cases of diabetes, 86,000 cases of endometriosis, and 10,700 early deaths from heart and other vascular diseases, such as stroke.
Many of these chemicals are more widely available in the U.S. than in Europe, says Dr. Trasande. Even in the European Union, however, the chemicals’ disease impact is estimated at more than $200 billion, according to a study conducted last year by the NYU team.
"Based on our analyses, stronger regulatory oversight of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is needed, not just in Europe, but in the U.S.," Dr. Trasande said in a press release. "This oversight should include not only safety tests on the chemicals' use in the manufacture of commercial products before the chemicals receive government approval, but also studies of their health impact over time once they are used in consumer products.”
Until government and industry regulations are put in place, Dr. Trasande says consumers can take a few simple steps consumers to limit their exposure.
“We can reduce our level of phthalates and bisphenol-A by avoiding microwaving plastics, looking at recycling number on the bottoms of containers, avoiding the numbers 3, 6, and 7,” he says. “And if plastic is obviously etched or scratched it’s a good time to throw it away.”
Canned-food consumption is the most straightforward way we ingest BPA, he continues, so buying food packaged in glass instead of metal will also help.
“In addition, we can eat organic and we can simply ventilate our homes,” he says. Toxic dust particles containing flame-retardant and other chemicals can accumulate in homes for months or years after they’re released from consumer products, he adds. “Simply open up our windows every couple of days—that allows for these chemical dusts to be flushed out into the broader external air environment.”
Co-author and NYU research scientist Teresa M. Attina, MD, also recommends washing plastic food containers by hand instead of putting them in the dishwasher, and switching to all-natural or fragrance-free cosmetics.
While $340 billion may sound like a high price to pay, Dr. Trasende says the chemicals’ actual impact is probably even more than that. The team’s analysis significantly discounted disease numbers to account for a “likely” as opposed to an “actual” number of people with any particular condition, he explains, putting their calculations on the “low end of the scale.”