Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals—environmental contaminants that interfere with hormonal systems, including reproduction—cost the U.S. up to $340 billion a year

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Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC)—environmental contaminants that interfere with hormonal systems, including reproduction—cost the U.S. up to $340 billion a year, nearly twice the cost in the European Union, according to a study published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. 

EDCs include industrial solvents or lubricants and their byproducts (polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated biphenyls [PBDE], and dioxins), plastics (bisphenol A), plasticizers (phthalates), pesticides (methoxychlor, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), and pharmaceutical agents (diethylstilbestrol). 

Studies find a plethora of adverse effects from exposure to these chemicals, including prostate and breast cancer, infertility, male and female reproductive dysfunction, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, cardiopulmonary disease, and neurobehavioral and learning dysfunctions such as autism.  

Researchers from New York University School of Medicine reviewed blood sample and urine analyses from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They then evaluated the economic impact of 15 exposure-response relations between seven chemicals or combinations and 11 disorders, including lost IQ points leading to intellectual disability, childhood and adult obesity, adult diabetes, testicular cancer, cryptorchidism, male factor infertility, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, fibroids, endometriosis, and early cardiovascular mortality due to reduced testosterone. 

They found median annual costs of $340 billion in medical and lost wages related to EDC exposure. This represents 2.3% of the 2010 gross domestic product (GDP). The total costs in Europe, which has far stricter policies on the use of such chemicals, was $217 billion, or 1.28% of the GDP. 

The majority of the costs ($266 billion) stemmed from intellectual disability related to the flame retardant PDBE, which is applied to furniture to make it less flammable. It was responsible for 43,000 cases of intellectual disability and 11 million lost IQ points. The chemical has been banned in Europe since 2006, where PDBE-related costs were only $12.6 billion. This chemical also is banned in California and is being voluntarily phased out throughout the industry. 

Di-2-ethylhexphthalate, which is commonly added to plastics to make them more flexible, was responsible for 86,000 cases of endometriosis at a cost of $47 billion, while organophosphate pesticides, which have been restricted in the U.S. since 1996 but never banned in Europe, were associated with 1.8 million lost IQ points and 7,500 cases of intellectual disability in the U.S. at an estimated cost of $44.7 billion. 

In Europe, where these pesticides are not strictly regulated, organophosphates are linked to 13 million lost IQ points and 59,300 cases of intellectual disability each year, costing a projected $194 billion. Other key findings include 243,900 cases of adult diabetes resulting from exposure to dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane; 240,100 cases of male infertility requiring assisted reproductive technology resulting from exposure to benzylphthalates and butylphthalates; and 10,700 early deaths related to low testosterone as a result of phthalates. 

There is currently no requirement in the U.S. that chemicals be studied for endocrine effects before their widespread use. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program to check for EDCs. To date, however, the agency has only screened 52 chemicals, with the bulk of the data based on animal studies. 

Efforts to accelerate screening with EPA’s ToxCast and Tox 21 High Throughput Screening programs have been stymied by flaws in the ability of ToxCast to detect synthetic chemical obesogens. Plus, it is unclear which chemicals fall into “high priority” and “low priority” groups for testing before approval. 

Given the known transgenerational effects of EDCs, the study authors warned, “Continuing not to regulate EDCs adequately could have consequences for subsequent generations of U.S. children.” 

The study, wrote Michele A La Merrill of the Department of Environmental Toxicology and Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Davis in an accompanying editorial, “provides a lesson on the lasting economic effects of harmful chemicals: whether banned long term, currently restricted, or being voluntarily phased out, the precautionary principle of proving chemicals are safe rather than proving their harm might be more financially beneficial.”