(Beyond Pesticides, December 13, 2017) A recent study finds that environmental exposures contribute to increasing disease burden and corresponding health costs that may exceed 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP). Neurological impairments particularly add significant costs to both individuals and societies. This European study combined cost calculations for exposures to environmental chemicals, including pesticides, air pollution, and endocrine disrupting substances, and suggests that a shift in priority setting for environmental policy is needed.
The study’s authors, from Harvard University, the University of Southern Denmark, and the EHESP School of Public Health in France, say that calculations currently used as international references are “serious underestimations” of the economic costs associated with preventable environmental risk factors. Published in Environmental Health, the study, Calculation of the disease burden associated with environmental chemical exposures: application of toxicological information in health economic estimation, combined and extended cost calculations for exposures to environmental chemicals, including neurotoxicants, pesticides, air pollution, and endocrine disrupting chemicals, where sufficient data were available to determine dose-dependent adverse effects. The study utilized risk valuations to assess the environmental burden of disease, and used country-specific monetary values of metrics for length and quality of life (Disability-Adjusted Life year or DALY – a common metric often used in measuring global burden of disease) to estimate societal costs, including costs borne by the health care system, by the individual and the household, and by employers and insurers. The study covers substances such as mercury, organophosphate pesticides (OPs), polybrominated diethyl ethers (PBDEs), and several endocrine disrupting chemicals.
The results of the authors’ calculations, based on economic estimates of exposure information and dose-response data, find that environmental chemical exposures contribute costs that may exceed 10% of GDP and that current DALY calculations substantially underestimate the economic costs associated with preventable environmental risk factors.
Neurotoxicants that lead to cognitive deficits and intellectually disability are identified as an important group of chemicals affecting the burden of disease, along with air pollution and endocrine disruptors – which represent a substantial attributable fraction for obesity. IQ losses due to PBDEs resulted in economic productivity losses of $12.6 billion, whereas OPs resulted in a lost economic productivity of $194 billion. In the U.S., where exposures are different, similar data suggest losses of $266 billion and $44.7 billion, for PBDEs and OPs, respectively. Thus, the authors note, neurodevelopmental toxicity must be considered a greater contributor to the environmental disease burden than previously considered.
According to the study, other assessments by international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) are primarily based on deaths and severe clinical conditions, while less serious subclinical conditions, such as childhood and adult obesity, male infertility, fibroids, and endometriosis among others, are mostly disregarded. Additionally, most calculations do not consider harm from prenatal exposures. Previous studies have estimated the economic costs of chemical exposure to be billions of dollars in lost productivity due to neurological deficits, reproductive, and developmental conditions and disease.
The authors conclude that several environmental risk factors represent very substantial annual losses to global GDP and that their findings suggest that “a revised paradigm is required for evaluating and prioritizing the environmental contribution to human illness and the associated costs.”
This study and others underscore the need for strong protections against harmful environmental exposures. Beyond Pesticides is working to advance regulatory reform and support broader implementation of alternative products and practices that do not rely on toxic chemicals. Through the Eating with a Conscience tool, those concerned about pesticides on their produce can find out which chemicals are allowed in food production. The ManageSafe database helps households control common pests without toxic pesticides, and the Lawn and Landscapes webpage helps property owners manage lawns without the use of pesticides linked to endocrine disruption and other adverse health effects. Ultimately, by supporting organic agriculture, with prohibits the use of harmful synthetic chemicals, we can help to drastically reduce the burden of disease.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.