Chemicals found in plastic bottles, flame retardants, metal food cans, detergents, cosmetics and pesticides cost the U.S. more than $340 billion a year in health costs and lost earnings, a new study estimates.
That's more than twice the annual estimated cost of $163 billion in the European Union, where regulations may limit exposure to some of these chemicals, researchers note in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.
The chemicals in question are known as endocrine disruptors because they can interfere with the body's endocrine, or hormone, system and produce negative developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects.
"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 New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.
For the current study, researchers reviewed blood sample and urine analyses that documented the presence of endocrine disruptors among U.S. participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
They estimated total costs linked to these chemicals based on both the direct cost of treatment and the indirect cost of lost productivity or earnings. Then, they compared the U.S. results to findings from a previous study done 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.
This chemical blend, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), 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.
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.
Autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, diabetes, heart and vascular disorders, and endometriosis are among the other diseases linked to exposure to endocrine disruptors and included in the cost analysis.
One limitation of the study is that researchers limited their cost analysis to a subset of about 5 percent of endocrine disruptors with solid evidence suggesting they cause health problems, the authors note. This may underestimate costs, they argue.
Even so, the results offer some of the most compelling evidence to date of the economic impact of U.S. environmental policy, said Joseph Allen, a public health researcher at Harvard University in Boston who wasn't involved in the study.
"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," Allen said by email.
"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."
Absent changes in regulations, there's still plenty people can do to limit their exposure to the chemicals, Trasande noted.
"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 said.
"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 said. "Switching to "all natural" or "fragrance-free" cosmetics can also reduce exposure."