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Health costs associated with pesticides 10 times higher in EU than in US

Food container chemicals are causing ADHD, autism and loss of IQ, according to medical research.

File photo of people shopping for canned goods.
File photo of people shopping for canned goods.
Image: Shutterstock

EXPOSURE TO TINY doses of hormone-disrupting chemicals is responsible for at least $340 billion (€310 billion) in health-related costs each year in the US, according to a report published this week.

So-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are found in thousands of everyday products, ranging from plastic and metal food containers, to detergents, flame retardants, toys and cosmetics.

Neurological damage and behavioural problems, including attention-deficit/
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and loss of IQ, accounted for at least four-fifths of these impacts, researchers said.

The study appeared in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, a medical journal, and was carried out to try and quantify the economic benefits of different regulatory frameworks.

The researchers said that exposure to EDCs varies widely between the US and the EU due to differences in regulations.

The invisible, dangerous chemicals also boosted obesity, diabetes, some cancers, male infertility and a painful condition known as endometriosis, the abnormal growth of tissue outside the uterus.

The economic impact of the chemicals leaves a huge, 2% dent in American gross domestic product (GDP) each year. The study noted that the disease costs of EDCs were much higher in the USA than in Europe, where they accounted for 1.28% of GDP.

The study said:

The difference was driven mainly by intelligence quotient (IQ) points loss and intellectual disability due to polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

The USA experienced 11 million IQ points lost, compared to 873 000 IQ points lost in the EU, the study added.

“Our research adds to the growing evidence on the tremendous economic as well as human health costs of endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” said lead investigator Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor at NYU Langone in New York City.

He added:

This has the potential to develop into a much larger health and economic issue if no policy action is taken.

The body’s endocrine tissues produce essential hormones that help regulate energy levels, reproduction, growth, development, as well as our response to stress and injury.

Mimicking naturally occurring hormones such as oestrogen and androgen, EDCs lock on to receptors within a human cell and block the body’s own hormones from binding with it.

‘Adverse consequences’

Recent research has raised red flags showing that “environmental contaminants can disrupt the endocrine system leading to adverse-health consequences,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

shutterstock_275546471 Detergent. Source: Shutterstock

In the US, the biggest chemical culprit by far among the thousands of manmade molecules suspected of interfering with human hormones are so-called PBDEs, found in flame retardants.

Flame retardants refers to the function of certain groups of chemicals that are added to manufactured materials, including plastics, textiles, paints and varnishes in order to lessen the likelihood of a fire.

Bisphenol A, used to line tin food cans, along with phthalates in plastic food containers and many cosmetics, were also held to be responsible for upward of $50 billion worth of health damages.

A similar study concluded last year that health-related costs of EDCs in the European Union were some €150 billion, about 1.28% of GPD.

Crucially, the main drivers of disease and disability were different on either side of the Atlantic, Trasande said.

“US costs are higher mainly because of the widespread use in furniture of brominated flame retardants,” which were banned in the EU in 2008, he explained.

The blood level of these chemicals in the average American would be in the top five percent of Europeans today.

By contrast, the health costs associated with pesticides in food were 10 times higher in the EU than in the United States, where more stringent regulations were put in place to protect pregnant women and children.

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Walmart Los Angeles Shoppers choosing tins of food at a Walmart in Chinatown, LA. Source: AP/Press Association Images

To put a figure on the impact of EDCs, the researchers reviewed blood and urine samples from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has gathered data since 2009 on major disease risk factors from 5,000 volunteers.

Computer models were then used to project how much each of 15 diseases or conditions was attributable to chemical exposure, and the estimated health costs for each one.

Loss of IQ

Flame retardants and pesticides in particular are known to affect the developing brain and can lead to loss of IQ.

“Each IQ point lost corresponds to approximately two percent in lost productivity,” Trasande explained.

The costs and benefits of regulation should be openly debated, the authors argued, citing the decision in the 1970s to ban lead in paint, and then 20 years later in gasoline.

Commenting in the same journal, Michele La Merrill, an expert in environmental toxicology at the University of California in Davis, said the new findings “provide a lesson on the lasting economic effects of harmful chemicals.”

They should “inspire a policy shift to end the cat-and-mouse game currently employed the US government and industry.”

The EU set broad criteria in June for identifying potentially harmful EDCs, but consumer and environmental groups said they fell far short of what is needed.

- © AFP, 2016, with reporting from Darragh Peter Murphy.

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