The Trump administration has argued that environmental regulations hold back economic productivity. Yet history suggests that the opposite is the case.
Look at phasing out lead in gasoline. To this day, the US receives a $200bn annual economic stimulus package each year because lead levels in children plummeted when the US Environmental Protection Agency moved to protect children.
Now, we realize that a larger suite of chemicals can disrupt hormones and cost our economy.
We’re talking not just about chemicals in cosmetics, but also in food packaging, aluminum cans, agriculture, electronics, carpeting and furniture. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are recognized as a major public health threat by the Endocrine Society, the World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But what’s not recognized is that these chemicals cost the US $340bn each year, according to research I was part of, published in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal.
Yes, that’s 2.3% of the US gross domestic product.
The key drivers of these costs in the US are the effects of flame retardants and pesticides on the developing brains of children. If one child loses IQ points, the parent or teacher may not even notice. But if, for example, 100,000 children lose an IQ point, the entire economy notices.
Each IQ point in a child is worth about 2% of their lifetime economic productivity. So if the average child makes $1m over her or his lifetime, this means an IQ point is worth about $20,000. Add up an IQ point across all of the 4,000,000 children born in the US each year, and the long line of zeros means big costs.
Getting lead out of gasoline shows the power of IQ points and the economic impact of doing the right thing and preventing these exposures.
I tell the undergraduates I teach at NYU that they are four to seven IQ points smarter because we got lead out of gasoline and paint. That reduced lead levels in kids by about 15 micrograms per deciliter, producing cohorts of kids who are $200bn more productive over their lifetimes than kids born in the 1970s. That equates to a tax refund of roughly $700 a person that we still get today as more children are born free of this exposure.
Unfortunately, these benefits are undermined by newer exposures that disrupt brain development, and prevent gains in cognitive potential that we otherwise achieve through stronger education and other social changes for the better.
Add in costs due to increases in obesity, diabetes, endometriosis, fibroids, infertility, cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer, and you get to that large total.
But what’s also striking is the impact of policy on these exposures, and how they differ across the Atlantic. It turns out these policies can have big impacts on people’s exposure.
Take flame retardants as an example.
California required that brominated flame retardants be sprayed into furniture going back to the 1970s, and the law only changed in 2013. In Europe, these chemicals were banned much sooner, producing an entire generation of children with much lower levels of chemicals that disrupt thyroid hormone, which is crucial for healthy brain development. In the US, the average American has levels that would be in the 95th percentile of Europeans or anyone else in the world for that matter. That’s why brominated flame retardants cost the US over $266bn each year, while in Europe those same chemicals cost only $13bn.
The frightening part of that story is how literally chemical exposures can undermine our competitive advantage with other countries, undermining our educational talent. And, these economic estimates don’t include the costs of having fewer children with genius IQs. The researchers only measured the costs of children who were pushed into the intellectually disabled range. The good news is that US policymakers’ efforts on pesticides in food have produced the opposite situation. According to our research, Europe loses $194bn in economic productivity due to organophosphate pesticide exposure, whereas the US loses closer to $45bn.
You’ll be delighted to know that the changes that are needed don’t necessarily require regulation. Just look at the impact recently of a small study that found perfluoroalkyl compounds in the linings of food packaging in two major supermarket chains. These major purchasers got rid of the offending packages, and insisted that their producer change their ways, and document the absence of these thyroid-disrupting compounds. Organic food is showing near double-digit annual percentage gains, and is now starting to appear in big-box stores. Now we see companies proudly displaying products documented to be free of bisphenol A and phthalates.
Clayton M Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation back in 1995 to describe innovation that fundamentally changes the value system, creating a new set of winners and losers. Consumers win when disruptive innovations for all sorts of products reset the competitive landscape for product characteristics, price and other factors. When these disruptions happen, the market becomes more efficient, providing greater value to the consumer. These changes don’t always work for chemicals, especially when they are replaced with structurally similar analogues. But green chemistry is now bringing us to a point where newer alternatives are able to be tested and replace those with health concerns.
And there’s a global competitiveness issue to keep in mind for those companies that don’t evolve. If companies in the US don’t do the right thing, companies in other countries might recognize the threat ahead first. The countries that lead the way in making the changes will eventually win by being more competitive in the eyes of the public that increasingly values avoiding EDC exposures.
The change we need to address endocrine disrupting chemicals EDCs is broad in scale – ideally, policy change would address it all. But if we start to rise up, speak out and act in our homes and our workplaces, with our family, friends and colleagues, we can start to produce the change that is needed, whoever is in the White House or in Congress.