Chemicals in household items raise U.S. health care costs

October 20, 2016 Providence Health Team

Common things you have at home—lipstick, plastic gadgets, flame-retardant sofa cushions—contain chemicals that can cause health problems by disrupting your endocrine system, according to a new study.

This is not just potentially bad for your health – the endocrine system regulates your metabolism, physical development, sexual function and other critical processes – it’s also expensive, researchers said.

In the U.S., the costs of treating health problems triggered by chemicals found in household products is about $340 billion a year, or more than 2.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the study. That’s higher than in Europe, where such health care costs amount to $217 billion, or about 1.3 percent of GDP.

Lead investigator Leonardo Trasande, M.D., an associate professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, said two-thirds of the cases of endocrine disruption were attributed to fire-resistant chemicals and pesticides, and that the unborn suffered the most neurological damage caused by these chemicals.

The researchers also linked the chemical compounds to:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD
  • Intellectual disability in children
  • Obesity in adults
  • Early deaths from heart and other vascular diseases
  • Endometriosis

The findings are disputed by the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for companies that produce chemicals.

Chemical culprits

The chemical compounds most widely implicated in endocrine disruptions include:

  • Bisphenol A, used to line tin food cans
  • Phthalates, used to make plastic food containers and many cosmetics
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, found in flame retardants in furniture and packaging;
  • Chlorpyrifos and organophosphates used in pesticides

Public health implications

The study is sure to be used as ammunition by those seeking stricter regulation of household chemicals.

"Based on our analyses, stronger regulatory oversight of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is needed, not just in Europe, but in the U.S.," says Dr. Trasande. "This oversight should include not only safety tests on the chemicals' use in the manufacture of commercial products before the chemicals receive government approval, but also studies of their health impact over time once they are used in consumer products."

What consumers can do

Scientists say that people are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals through gradual ingestion as products are used and break down. 

Senior study investigator Teresa M. Attina, M.D., also of NYU Langone, offered some steps you can take to limit exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals:

  • Don’t microwave food covered with plastic wrap or in plastic containers.
  • Wash plastic food containers by hand instead of in the dishwasher.
  • Avoid using plastic containers labeled on the bottom with the numbers 3, 6, or 7 inside the recycle symbol. These numbers indicate the plastic contains chemicals such as phthalates.
  • Switch to all-natural or fragrance-free cosmetics.

To learn more

An abstract of the study, “Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the USA: a population-based disease burden and cost analysis,” is available on The Lancet website. A reader-friendly story about the study is available from NYU’s Langone Medical Center.

The response to The Lancet study by the American Chemistry Council, which accuses the researchers of “casual indifference to scientific principles,” may be found here.

We’ve written previously about household chemicals. Most recently we told you about toxins found in household dust. We’ve also discussed some benefits of household chemicals. For example, you may want to read why you should stock up on hydrogen peroxide, which can disinfect counters, purify produce and remove earwax.

To learn more about how household chemicals are regulated in the U.S., visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s page on Toxic Substances. And here’s a page with the EPA’s answers to frequently asked questions about chemical regulation.

To understand how chemicals can interfere with the endocrine system, see the page on Endocrine Disruptera by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.

You may want to discuss your exposure to harmful chemicals with your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider in our directory.

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