New research suggests that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) likely costs the European Union (EU) €157 billion ($172 billion) every year in actual health-care expenses and lost earning potential. The findings were outlined in four studies in the March issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, published by the Endocrine Society, Washington, D.C.
The authors represent a broad spectrum of environmental and public health organizations throughout Europe, plus two in the U.S. They presented their findings at simultaneous press events held in Brussels, Belgium and at the Society’s 97th annual meeting and expo in San Diego, Calif., on March 5.
They concluded that exposure to EDCs is in part responsible for a range of conditions including infertility and male reproductive dysfunctions, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurobehavioral and learning disorders. The authors also believe their €157 billion estimate is conservative. Currently, this represents 1.23% of Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP). These costs may actually be as high as €270 billion ($294 billion), or 2% of GDP, they say.
“The analysis demonstrates just how staggering the cost of widespread endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure is to society,” notes Leonardo Trasande, associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health at NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City, who led a team of eighteen researchers across eight countries. “This research crystalizes more than three decades of lab and population-based studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the EU,” he adds.
A panel of global EDC experts adapted existing health cost models for their analysis, relying on an approach developed by the Institute of Medicine, Washington, D.C., in 1981, to assess the contribution of environmental factors in causing illness. The researchers then evaluated these adapted models against the likelihood that EDCs contributed to various medical conditions and dysfunction, limiting the analysis to disorders where the scientific evidence is strongest.
The analysis included direct costs of hospital stays, physician services, nursing home care and other medical costs. The researchers also calculated estimates of indirect costs such as lost worker productivity, early death and disability.
“Although this analysis was limited to the EU, the disease and cost burden of exposure is likely to be on the same order of magnitude in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world,” Trasande adds.
In the EU, the researchers found the biggest cost driver was loss of IQ and intellectual disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to pesticides containing organophosphates. The study estimated the harm done to unborn children costs society between €46.8 billion ($50.9 billion) and €195 billion ($212 billion) a year. About 13 million lost IQ points and 59,300 additional cases of intellectual disability per year can be attributed to organophosphate exposure, they say.
Adult obesity linked to phthalate exposure generated the second-highest total, with estimated costs of €15.6 billion ($16.9 billion) a year.
“Our findings show that limiting exposure to the most common and hazardous endocrine-disrupting chemicals is likely to yield significant economic benefits,” says one of the study’s authors, Philippe Grandjean, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark, and adjunct professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Mass. “This approach has the potential to inform decision-making in the environmental health arena. We are hoping to bring the latest endocrine science to the attention of policymakers as they weigh how to regulate these toxic chemicals,” he adds.
However, speaking to BBC News, professor Richard Sharpe from the UK Medical Research Council’s human reproductive sciences unit, Edinburgh, Scotland, says he agrees with the authors that more research is needed in this area.
He adds, “Most of the content of these publications is interpretation and informed speculation and none of us should lose sight of this. What worries me about this approach is that whilst this may help to focus attention on the need for further research to clarify the huge number of uncertainties in these areas, these highly presumptive estimations inevitably become viewed and presented as being far more solid than they actually are.”
Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at email@example.com