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Ethical Economics

Ethical Economics Environmental Protection Makes Fiscal SenseReprint rights
By Kathleen Schuler and Samuel Yamin
Daily Planet, July 18, 2006
Child health advocates have argued for years that man-made chemicals and products cause or trigger a portion of the childhood afflictions in Minnesota, costing the state more in health care dollars, increased special education and lost wages.

The polluters, and their political allies, shrugged their shoulders and claimed nobody knew the economic benefits of protecting children's health, but they would not stand for any action that might somehow nick the bottom line.

They can't claim that anymore.

In Minnesota alone, environment-related childhood diseases cost us $1.5 billion every single year.

That $1.5 billion comes from families like Julia Earl and her six-year-old son Ben, who was diagnosed with asthma three years ago. The daily medications he takes cost the family about $100 a month. When Ben suffers an asthma attack, he has to visit the clinic or emergency room and Julia and her husband have to decide who is going to take off from work to stay home until he recovers.

Numerous studies have linked childhood asthma attacks to air pollutants such as particulate matter and smog. Children's exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury and other brain toxins are associated with everything from cancer to poor brain development, while a mother's exposure to mercury, dioxins and PCBs can increase the risk for birth defects.

Using the best peer-reviewed science available, researchers at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, conservatively estimated the cost of childhood medical conditions caused or triggered by pollution.

The total was $1.5 billion. That's the equivalent of building not one, but three Minnesota Twins stadiums every year.

Pollution is making our children sick. Yet, we continue to allow harmful toxins such as lead, mercury and pesticides to be released into the environment and into our children's bodies. But now that we have the information, it's time to act. When it became clear that second-hand smoke causes cancer, we banned cigarettes in restaurants and bars, places frequented mostly by adults. Will we do less for our more vulnerable children?

The good news is we know what has to be done and it doesn't require fancy and expensive new technology. It does require making the health of our children our top priority.

For instance, the largest chunk of the cost comes from lead poisoning, which costs the state more than $1 billion a year. As a nation, we banned lead from paint in the 1970s, yet our children still swallow too much of it because paint brushed on the one million Minnesota homes built before 1978 is still flaking off and landing on surfaces within reach of children.

We need to fund programs to help building owners remove the old leaded paint and provide more resources for families dealing with lead poisoned children. We challenge state officials to make Minnesota a national leader for children's health by taking a few strong steps including: requiring non-mercury alternatives for all products; implementing programs to reduce pesticide use in homes, schools and parks; phasing out the use of toxic flame-retardants in products; developing a state-wide public health tracking system; reforming Minnesota's chemical regulatory system to require safer products, comprehensive safety data and phasing out the most persistent and toxic chemicals.

When a Minnesota family is hit by a childhood disease, it's nearly impossible to assess the total price. "In addition to the nearly $100 a month in actual financial costs, asthma's greatest cost to our family is worry and anxiety," Earl said.

We have always known that protecting children from environmental health hazards was the morally correct thing to do. Now we know it's also the economically correct thing to do.

Kathleen Schuler, MPH, is with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. Samuel Yamin, MPH, is with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in St. Paul.

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