Environmental Toxins Cost Billions in Childhood Disease

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Back in 2002, Philip Landrigan and a team of other researchers at Mount Sinai Medical School estimated the annual cost of four childhood conditions — lead poisoning, cancer, developmental disabilities and asthma — that could be connected to environmental factors. The numbers were surprising: Landrigan estimated that the environmental factors cost as much as $54.8 billion, or about 2.8% of total U.S. health care spending in 1997, the year the study drew from.

The conclusions were obvious — environmental pollution and toxins were a significant drag on the economy, and there was an economic case to be made for reducing childhood exposure. Unfortunately, policymakers didn’t pay attention, and there’s been little effort to update national regulations on chemical exposure and environmental pollutants.

(More on Time.com: BPA Exposure in Pregnancy May Be Linked to Childhood Asthma)

Now two of Landrigan’s colleagues — Leonardo Trasande of Mount Sinai and Yinghua Liu of the National Children’s Study — have taken another look at the costs of environmental disease in children, and the results have only gotten worse. In a new study in Health Affairs, Trasande and Liu have included autism and attention deficit disorder in the mix, and they now estimate that environmental disease in children costs some $76.6 billion. “That’s over 3% of total health care costs,” says Trasande. “The environment has become a major part of childhood disease.”

The news isn’t all bad. Trasande and Liu found that exposure to lead and air pollution has been falling, thanks in part to tightening regulations. That has helped to reduce mental disability and asthma in children. But as scientists have continued to explore the connection between environmental factors and disease, they’ve found that chemical exposure and other toxins may play a role in a wide variety of health problems. That, in turn, has only intensified the need for tighter environmental regulations — regulations that Trasande and Liu’s analysis finds can pay for themselves. “We can work to cost-effectively reduce chemical exposure now,” says Trasande. “But if we’re short-sighted, we’ll pay for this over generations with reduced health and stunted economic productivity.”

(More on Time.com: Pesticide Exposure in Pregnancy Can Lower Kids’ IQ)

With Congress fighting over environmental regulations again, the subject is more important than it has ever been. Check out the full study here.

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