Common household chemicals hurt our health … and cost us billions

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

(CNN) – Routine contact with plastic bottles, toys, food cans, cosmetics and flame retardants containing “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” results in ingestion, leading to a toxic buildup and potentially a variety of medical conditions.

Routine exposure to these chemicals adds up to annual costs in excess of $340 billion — a whopping price tag that comes in the form of poor health, increased medical bills and lost income, according to researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center.

The largest single cost comes from chemical effects on children’s developing brains, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor at NYU Langone and lead investigator of the study.

Obviously, costs are not the main concern of families with growing children.

According to Trasande, a few simple steps will limit exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the home.

  • Families can eat organic
  • Avoid the use of pesticides in their homes to get rid of unwanted creatures
  • Avoid aluminum can food consumption
  • Avoid microwaving plastic
  • Machine-dishwashing plastic containers
  • It is important to avoid plastic bottles with the numbers 3, 6 and 7 on the bottom.

Another easy fix for families is to “simply air out their homes every couple of days,” Trasande said. This helps remove chemical dusts from electronics and other materials, especially flame retardants.

Chemicals and our hormones

By mimicking the body’s natural sex steroid hormones, endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with the function of hormones. Increasing evidence over the past three decades shows how exposure to these chemicals has negative effects on human health, including neurobehavioral disorders, reproductive disorders, and obesity and diabetes, according to Trasande and his co-authors.

These chemicals include bisphenol A (BPA), which lines food cans made of tin; phthalates, which are used when manufacturing cosmetics and plastic food containers; polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) found in the flame retardants added to furniture and packaging; and pesticides such as chlorpyrifos and organophosphates.

For the new study, appearing in the journal Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, the NYU team reviewed the levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in blood and urine samples provided by volunteers participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Five thousand people have participated in this survey each year since 1999.

After collecting this data, Trasande and his colleagues used advanced computer models to estimate the total cases of disease that would result from exposure to the levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals they observed. The researchers also calculated the consequences of disease caused by chemicals: lost income, in addition to health care bills.

The grand total? Annually, it costs the United States $340 billion. Yearly exposure to highly toxic fire-resisting PBDE chemicals and pesticides accounted for nearly two-thirds of this total endocrine-disrupting chemical disease burden, said Trasande.

Worst of all, most of this financial burden resulted from neurological damage in unborn children.

“Typically, when policy discussions are had about regulation, the arguments are one-sided,” Trasande said, noting that everyday people hear about the costs to manufacturers, but they never hear about the benefits — and cost savings — involved in regulating the use of damaging chemicals.

This new analysis is intended “to facilitate a transparent dialogue about the real and substantial tradeoffs for human health that we make by failing to act to protect against the chemicals of greatest concern,” said Trasande.

As such, it should come in handy for the days ahead.

Chemical policy decisions in the works

In June, President Obama signed into law a reboot of the Toxic Substances Control Act, “the major law that reviews chemicals for their safety and decides whether they should be allowed for use in the broad environment,” including in personal care products, furniture and electronics, explained Trasande.

“That law presumed that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

The June reboot, known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, means “the Environmental Protection Agency is on a fast timeline to deal with the requirements associated with that action,” said Frankie Wood-Black, principal at Sophic Pursuits Inc., a boutique consulting firm specializing in environmental and safety regulatory compliance and an instructor at Northern Oklahoma College.

“All of us in the regulatory world” are interested in the EPA’s timing, actions and priorities, said Wood-Black.

With the EPA articulating new policy, “there is an opportunity here to ensure effective implementation of the law,” Trasande said.

That said, not everyone agrees with the Trasande team assessment.

“This report doesn’t distinguish between endocrine action and endocrine disruption,” said Dr. Joseph Perrone, chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science. He explained that many substances, including naturally occurring soy, can interact with the human endocrine system without causing harm. The report, he noted, does not distinguish between simple endocrine action, where a substance interacts with the human endocrine system, and endocrine disruption, where a substance causes harm to the endocrine system.

“This is an important distinction because activity does not by itself cause harm,” said Perrone. The Center for Accountability in Science is a project of the Center for Organizational Research and Education, a nonprofit dedicated to the research of activist groups.

Another view of the work was presented by Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin. She explained how last year, Trasande and his team estimated costs based on predictions of exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union.

“It is important that they did a similar study in the US, because it shows that costs of endocrine-disrupting chemicals to health are an international problem,” Gore said, adding that the chemicals people are exposed to differ around the world, so “learning about exposures in one part of the world can inform decisions in other places that may be considering whether or not to allow or ban a chemical.”

Gore was not involved in the new study, though she is a co-author in a couple of the studies cited by Trasande.

According to Michele La Merrill, an environmental toxicologist and assistant professor at University of California-Davis, the authors used a definition of endocrine disruption that reflects the views of the Endocrine Society, a 100-year-old global membership organization representing professionals from the field.

“These authorities have a broader definition of endocrine disrupting-chemicals than that used by the US EPA,” said La Merrill, who did not participate in the research. “This exposes a weakness in the archaic US EPA definition and indicates a need for the US EPA to include endocrine-disrupting effects they currently do not consider, such as obesity.”

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