Children’s illnesses from pollutants cost Mainers $380 million

Posted Feb. 05, 2009, at 7:46 p.m.

A hefty $380.9 million — that’s the annual cost in Maine of childhood illnesses caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and other pollutants, according to a new report from a University of Maine researcher.

The costs of lead poisoning, asthma, childhood cancer and neurobehavioral disorders such as autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and mental retardation are analyzed in the report to be released today by environmental researcher and economist Mary Davis, an adjunct faculty member in the UMaine School of Economics.

“The take-home message is that whatever we can do to reduce childhood exposure to environmental pollution is money well spent,” Davis said Thursday.

In addition to her work at the University of Maine. Davis is an assistant professor at the Department of Environmental and Urban Planning at Tufts University and holds a joint appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health. An earlier study she produced about exposure to secondhand smoke supported Maine’s recent ban against smoking in cars when children are present.

Among the finding of the new report:

• The total annual cost of childhood lead poisoning is $268 million, reflecting the estimated lost lifetime earning potential of Maine children who sustain long-term neurological damage.

• Treating autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy and mental retardation is estimated to cost $8.8 million.

• Treating childhood cancers costs more than $2.5 million.

• Childhood asthma is estimated to cost the state $8.8 million each year.

• Adopting stronger consumer education and chemical management control policies in Maine could significantly improve children’s health and eliminate costs.

The research is modeled on and extrapolates from a national study with available Maine-specific data added.

Maine children are at high risk of exposure to lead in their environments due to the state’s aging housing in both rural and urban areas as well as to lead contamination from old industrial sites, according to the report. Even at relatively low levels, lead poisoning is known to cause neurological damage, including lowered IQ that can persist throughout the lifespan.

Maine’s incidence of asthma in adults is the fifth highest in the nation, according to the report, and asthma in children also is being diagnosed more frequently, mirroring national rates that doubled from 3.6 percent of all children in 1980 to 7.5 percent in 1995. Davis attributes the increase to exposure to household chemicals and pesticides as well as high levels of ozone and particulate pollutants in Maine’s air.

Neurobehavioral disorders can be caused by exposure to lead, arsenic and mercury as well as PCBs and a number of other elements and chemicals, including some used in manufacturing products designed for children. Among other impacts, these disorders drive up the cost of delivering special education services to students. The percentage of Maine youngsters receiving special education services rose from 12.7 percent in 1986 to 17.7 percent in 2007, according to the report.

Maine’s adult cancer rate is the highest in the nation, and the state’s incidence of childhood cancer is also higher than the national average, according to the report. While the link between cancer and environmental exposures is not well established, Davis says as many as 90 percent of cases may be environmentally caused.

Childhood illnesses related to individual choices such as exposure to secondhand smoke or maternal alcohol use during pregnancy are not included in the study.

Davis said Maine has already adopted some effective policies to guard against environmental exposure to toxic substances. For example, Maine’s rate of screening young children for exposure to lead is high, while elevated blood lead levels on average are lower than they were 10 years ago.

Davis also praised recent legislation that calls on the state to identify and regulate certain chemicals used in manufacturing consumer goods. Still, the state must do more, according to the report.

“It is clear that reducing childhood exposure to environmental pollutants would provide a sizeable economic benefit to the state,” the report concludes. “Beyond the economic impact, the unique susceptibility of children to environmental pollutants and their inability to make informed decisions to limit their risks makes the issue of reducing childhood exposures a moral imperative.”

Davis will present her findings today at the University of Maine. The report may also be viewed online at www.umaine.edu/soe under the link to “research and publications.”

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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