Environmental exposures in children cost Michigan billions

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Michigan could save billions of dollars if the state’s children weren’t made sick by toxic chemicals, according to a recent report by the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health.

The report, The Price of Pollution: Cost Estimates of Environment-Related Childhood Disease in Michigan, found families spend $5.8 billion each year on costs related to asthma, neurological disorders, pediatric cancer and lead poisoning in children.

That’s 1.5 percent of Michigan’s Gross Domestic Product, according to the report.

The four diseases studied are often linked to exposures to environmental contaminants.

“Children are especially susceptible to toxic chemicals,” said Aviva Glaser, lead author of the report. “Children are at a critical stage, where childhood disease can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

The study examined both direct costs such as hospitalization and medication, and the more indirect costs such as days a child misses from school and days of work a parent may have to take off to care for a sick child.

“Part of the total is for direct treatment and part is for indirect costs, like the earning potential of a child who might die,” said Tracey Easthope, co-author of the report.

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine performed a national study in 2002 examining the cost of these childhood diseases. It found that they cost $54.9 billion a year nationally.

Since then, states such as Washington and Maine have localized the national study. The Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health, a coalition of health and environmental organizations, localized it for the first time in Michigan.

“This kind of an analysis encourages you to begin to think about the ripple effect of how these diseases affect children and families,” said Ted Schettler, author of the Michigan report and science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

The largest cost of the four diseases studied was associated with lead poisoning, accounting for $4.85 billion of the total. Children are exposed to lead through lead paint on toys or ion the walls of a home or other environmental exposures, according to the report. Their IQ and brain development can suffer from the exposure.

“Lead is a metal that has been used widely in gasoline and especially in paint in old housing,” said Schettler. “Michigan has a long history of concern about the impacts of lead exposure on children but I doubt anyone has attempted to put a dollar figure to it in terms of what the implications are for the kids.”

In 2007, Michigan was the sixth worst state for childhood lead poisoning, according to the report.

The study says that neurodevelopment disorders represent the second greatest cost. The neurological disorders the study focused on autism, mental retardation and cerebral palsy and accounted for $845 million.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, neurodevelopment disorders have been traced to exposure to mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyl or PCBs. Although long banned, PCBs are still found in electrical and hydraulic equipment, paints, plastics, rubber products, pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper.

Approximately 10 percent of neurodevelopment disorders are caused by environmental exposures.

“We know from many scientific studies that people are exposed to dozens of industrial chemicals even before they are born,” said Schettler.

The costs associated with childhood asthma in the state were estimated at $88.4 million. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, tobacco smoke and other allergens are some causes of the disease that sent 4,325 children to the hospital in Michigan in 2008.

Pediatric cancer was responsible for $17.3 million in associated costs, the study reports.

“This report helps people to understand that we are widely exposed to chemicals and there are illnesses that are directly attributable to those environmental exposures,” said Schettler. “There are real health consequences and real dollars.”

And the multibillion-dollar total is a conservative estimate, according to the report.

Other childhood illnesses caused by environmental exposures were not taken into account officials said.

“It is certainly a large figure,” said Glaser. “However, it is on scale with what we found nationally.”

The Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health said federal law such as the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act has failed to keep toxic chemicals out of the marketplace.

“It is deeply flawed and has failed to keep hazardous chemicals out of commerce and basically allows companies, manufacturers to introduce new chemicals without any adequate safety information,” said Schettler. “The act was passed in the 1970s and has not been reformed since.”

The Michigan House of Representatives recently passed the Michigan Children’s Safe Product Act, a statewide initiative requiring manufacturers of children’s products to list chemicals of concern in children’s products, including toys or other items.  The bill is pending before the state Senate.

“This report really underscores the need for changes in Michigan, “ said Glaser. “In the current economic climate, it is important to focus on prevention and if there are ways to prevent diseases, it not only makes for economic sense, but it makes for a healthier community.”

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