While recent studies have documented the unique vulnerability of young children to chemical exposures, little is known about the extent to which environmental pollutants have contributed to disease in children in America. The most serious diseases confronting children in the United States are chronic, disabling illnesses that place an enormous burden on our health care resources. These include asthma, leukemia and other childhood cancers, and neurobehavioral disorders such as autism, mental retardation, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Recent studies on childhood illnesses suggest that many of these diseases are caused in part by exposure to environmental chemicals. Children are especially vulnerable to the thousands of high volume chemicals that contaminate our air, water, and food. Children receive proportionately larger doses of chemical toxicants than adults, and these exposures occur at a time when children’s organs and tissues are rapidly growing and developing.
NIEHS-supported researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine estimated the contribution of environmental pollutants to the incidence, mortality and costs of four kinds of childhood diseases: lead poisoning, asthma, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders. The researchers calculated the fraction of each disease that was attributable to environmental exposures, the prevalence of these diseases, and the size of the population at risk. Based on these factors, the researchers estimate the annual costs associated with environmentally related illness in American children to be approximately $54.9 billion. Of this amount, $43.4 billion is due to lead poisoning, $2.0 billion to asthma, $0.3 billion to childhood cancer, and $9.2 billion to neurobehavioral disorders. This figure amounts to nearly 3% of total U.S. health care costs.
These findings suggest that the costs of children’s environmental diseases are high in relation to the limited resources directed to research and prevention. This information will be useful in developing new strategies and guidelines for the detection and prevention of environmental illness in America’s children including more comprehensive testing of environmental chemicals, additional research on the causes of environmental illness, development of new methods for tracking pediatric diseases, and the allocation of resources needed to prevent pollution.