Exposure to toxins costs us billions each year, study shows
By Bob Condor
July 11, 2005
Money talks, we all know that. For Kate Davies, money and economics can say plenty toward arguing for tighter regulation of toxic chemicals used by companies in Washington.
"It is important for environmentalists to use economic arguments to control toxic chemicals," said Davies, a researcher in environment and community at Antioch University Seattle's Center for Creative Change. "Of course, monetary valuations of diseases and disabilities are only part of the picture. They do not take account of people's suffering or the emotional costs to families and friends.
"But whether we like it or not, legislators are heavily influenced by economic arguments. It is important for environmentalists to speak this language.
In an exclusive interview with the P-I and the Living Well column, Davies released her findings from a new study that links big money -- billions -- in health-care costs to environmental toxins. The Antioch study shows environmental contaminants cause $1.6 to $2.2 billion in direct and indirect costs in the state for childhood conditions such as asthma, cancer, lead exposure, birth defects and neurobehavioral disorders. Adult conditions (asthma, heart disease, cancer and more) run up $2.8 billion to $3.5 billion.
That's a lot of money that can be trimmed from a legislative budget or health-care costs program. It represents the sort of dollars that make legislators sit up and notice.
The findings are timed to Wednesday's public hearings about "persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances," or PBTs. She hopes to catch the attention of state legislators and Department of Ecology officials attending the hearings who will be writing a draft rule on PBTs.
"This is exactly the sort of evidence we need to present to legislators as they develop new regulations for environmental toxins," said Elise Miller, director of the Institute for Children's Environmental Health based in Freeland.
Davies' new study is based on an "environmentally attributable fraction" model that estimates proportions of each disease or disability that can conservatively be linked to exposure to environmental toxins. So Davies' numbers may even be on the low side.
Her well-documented research is part of a national trend to track health-care costs related to environmental factors, but Davies is the first scientist to specifically target how the numbers affect our state.
These environmental health researchers are smart to include mainstream government and medical sources in their papers.
It marks the first time state legislators will have access to such eco-economics during public hearings. It is what makes Davies' work so important -- and encouraging to any environmental activist.
An important point: Cost-benefit analysis has been part of environmental policy making for years, yet in most cases only the costs of managing toxic chemicals is included in any analysis.
Davies said the environmental health costs associated with children's conditions is roughly .7 percent of the state gross national product, while environmental health costs for adults equates to 1 percent of the local annual GNP.
Funding programs that reduce health-care costs associated with environmental toxins means the state GNP would increase nearly 2 percent. This is attractive to state legislators.
Some of the individual costs attached to conditions are worth noting. For instance, a large part of the eco-health costs can be traced to lead exposure. There is no "safe" threshold for lead exposure in young children, especially age 5 and younger. Total cost for 2004 is pegged at $1.5 billion for the potential damage of lead exposure to the developing brain and central nervous system.
Childhood asthma is another instructive case. Dr. Philip Landrigan at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York conducted a landmark study that estimates 10 to 35 percent of kids' asthma is linked to outdoor non-biologic pollutants (translation: toxic man-made chemicals). About $50 million per year goes to treating Washington children with asthma caused by these pollutants.
Davies' study also connects a portion of the huge costs of cardiovascular disease to toxic chemicals used by industry. Her analysis shows $564 million was spent in 2004 on heart patients adversely affected by pollutants.
Just the mere act of counterbalancing industry lobbyists is a significant outcome for Davies. She and Miller both anticipate this report will create some momentum for a tougher draft rule on PBTs.
Their goal for Wednesday's public hearings is to "influence the debate," said Davies.
"It is important to look at this issue from a Washington state perspective," she said. "We could significantly improve the state's economic performance by eliminating or controlling the use of toxic chemicals."
Bob Condor writes every Monday about health and quality of life. He is editor of the Seattle-based Evergreen Monthly, which covers health, environment, food, social good, spirituality and personal growth (visit www.evergreenmonthly.com). Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or ideas for the Living Well column.
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