Environmental Illness in U.S. Kids Cost $76.6 Billion in One Year

Environmental Illness in U.S. Kids Cost $76.6 Billion in One Year

NEW YORK, New York, May 4, 2011 (ENS) – It cost a “staggering” $76.6 billion to cover the health expenses of American children who were sick because of exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollutants in 2008, according to new research by senior scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Published in the May issue of the journal “Health Affairs,” three new studies by Mount Sinai scientists reveal the economic impact of toxic chemicals and air pollutants in the environment, and propose new legislation to require testing of new chemicals as well as those already on the market.

In one of the studies, Leonardo Trasande, MD, associate professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and his team calculated the annual cost for direct medical care and the indirect costs, such as parents’ lost work days, and lost economic productivity caring for their children, of these diseases in children.

Environmental toxins can make children miserable (Photo credit unknown)

“Our findings show that, despite previous efforts to curb their use, toxic chemicals have a major impact on health care costs and childhood morbidity,” said Dr. Trasande.

Lead poisoning still costs the most at $50.9 billion a year, while autism is a distant second at $7.9 billion.

Intellectual disabilities cost $5.4 billion a year, exposure to mercury pollution costs $5.1 billion, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder costs $5 billion, asthma costs $2.2 billion, and childhood cancer costs $95 million.

“New policy mandates are necessary to reduce the burden of disease associated with environmental toxins,” said Dr. Trasande. “The prevalence of chronic childhood conditions and costs associated with them may continue to rise if this issue is not addressed.”

He advised reducing lead-based paint hazards and curbing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“Given evidence that current ambient air quality standards remain insufficiently protective for children, ongoing efforts are needed to reduce outdoor air pollutant emissions and their consequences for children’s breathing,” he states in the study.

Obesity in children is also a result of toxic exposure, Dr. Trasande finds. “Emerging evidence, for example, is beginning to support the notion that endocrine-disrupting chemicals may contribute to the development of childhood obesity,” he states. “Such chemicals are found in the environment, food, or consumer products and interfere with metabolism or normal hormone control or reproduction.”

Philip Landrigan, MD (Photo courtesy Mt. Sinai)

Dr. Trasande also reviewed an earlier study of 1997 data, which was conducted by Philip Landrigan, MD, and documented $54.9 billion in annual costs for childhood diseases associated with environmental toxins in the United States.

Dr. Landrigan is currently dean for global health, and professor and chair of preventive medicine, and professor of pediatrics, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Reviewing this prior analysis, Dr. Trasande found that while exposure to lead and costs associated with asthma had diminished, new chemicals and new environmentally-induced diseases, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have increased the overall burden of disease.

In a related article, also in “Health Affairs,” Dr. Landrigan and Lynn Goldman, MD, dean of the School of Public Health at George Washington University, propose a three-pronged approach to reduce the burden of disease and rein in the effects of toxic chemicals in the environment.

Landrigan and Goldman say, “The linchpins of a new U.S. chemical policy will be:

  • first, a legally mandated requirement to test the toxicity of chemicals already in commerce, prioritizing chemicals in the widest use, and incorporating new assessment technologies
  • second, a tiered approach to premarket evaluation of new chemicals
  • third, epidemiologic monitoring and focused health studies of exposed populations.”

“Implementing these proposals would have a significant impact in preventing childhood disease and reducing health costs,” said Dr. Landrigan. “Scant legislation has been passed to reduce the risks associated with childhood exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment.”

On April 14, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, introduced updated legislation to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and protect Americans from exposure to toxins.

Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, seeks to require, for the first time, that chemical manufacturers demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals used in everyday household products.

Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would require safety testing of all industrial chemicals, and puts the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order to get on or stay on the market.

Under current policy, the Environmental Protection Agency can only call for safety testing after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous. As a result, the EPA has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and just six have been banned.

“Even though only six chemicals have been banned, we have seen dramatic benefits from that action alone,” Dr. Landrigan said. “The removal of lead from gasoline and paint is an example of the importance of this type of regulation.”

In a separate article in the same journal, Perry Sheffield, MD, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, evaluated the little-studied correlation between air pollution and infectious respiratory illness in children, and the resultant health care costs.

Dr. Sheffield and her team analyzed hospitalization data between 1999 and 2007 for children aged one month to one year who had bronchiolitis – a type of viral lung infection with symptoms similar to asthma – and monitored the air quality surrounding in the hospitals where the patients were treated.

They found a statistically significant association between levels of fine particulate matter pollutant surrounding the hospitals, and total charges and costs for infant bronchiolitis hospitalizations.

As the amount of air pollutants increased, infant bronchiolitis hospitalization costs increased by an average of $127 per patient.

They concluded that reducing the average level of fine particulate pollutant by just seven percent below the current annual standard could save $15 million annually in U.S. health care costs.

“While more research is required to understand the full effect of air pollutants on infectious disease severity and health care costs,” said Dr. Sheffield, “our findings are indicative of the tremendous impact new legislation on air quality control standards could have on the health of our children.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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