Making the Bottom Line Healthier for All: The Economic Argument for Reducing Exposures

written by Elise Miller, MEd

What does it cost us to have more people than ever suffering from chronic illnesses? Last week a highly respected health economist in Europe, along with a number of scientists specializing in endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), released a groundbreaking report indicating that the EU is spending at least $175 billion (US) a year on chronic diseases related to EDC exposures. This was the first analysis of its kind to focus on the costs of neurological effects, obesity and diabetes (related to the disruption of metabolic function), and male reproductive disorders.

from the EU reportAnd this is of course not just a European concern. Over the past decade or two, leaders in environmental health have provided various estimates on the environmentally attributable fraction of costs for various health endpoints, such as ADHD, childhood cancers, and asthma, in the US. All of these analyses, even the most conservative ones, have indicated that society would save billions of dollars every year in health care costs and lost wages if we reduced exposures to certain chemical contaminants. As the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences noted in response to the EU report, “If you applied these [health care] numbers to the US, they would be applicable, and in some cases higher.”

quote from Lizzie GrossmanLizzie Grossman made this point even clearer in her breaking article: “To put $175 billion in perspective, it is more than the combined proposed 2016 budgets for the US Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, National Park Service, and Environmental Protection Agency combined.”

Another way of thinking about this is even if the estimated health care costs related to exposures to EDCs were only about half of that, say $90 billion, we could quintuple the budgets for Head Start and Child Care and Development Fund in the US with those savings alone. That would mean a lot more kids could get a far better start in life—and of course, a lot fewer adults would be suffering from preventable diseases.

On the federal level, the politics are so mired and convoluted that a bill to protect citizens more effectively from exposures to the tens of thousands of untested chemicals that are on the market has yet to pass Congress. The latest draft of the measure to reform the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), circulated to lawmakers earlier this week, continues to have some serious flaws according to many colleagues. This means that it’s not at all clear how the Senate hearing on this version will go next week.

But there is good news on the market front. On Monday, it was announced that Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture retailer in the US, has agreed to stop using toxic flame retardants (which are EDCs) in their products. This is of course a huge win for consumers and shows that leading companies can move away from using chemicals that impact human health without harming their bottom line—and perhaps even increasing it. Plus, health will improve more broadly because people won’t be exposed to flame retardants—in turn, reducing health care costs across society. And that brings us back to the seminal report I mentioned at the beginning on health costs in the EU linked to EDCs.

The economic argument for minimizing exposures to toxic chemicals is a powerful one because it is grounded in evidence-based science. Naysayers can continue to try to make the case that these exposures are not really harmful to health and that removing them would undermine the economy. But it’s clear that companies like Ashley Furniture aren’t going to wait for politics to catch up with the science to do the right thing. Here’s to more companies and decision-makers in every sector of society realizing that a healthy bottom line can in fact be healthier for all.

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