March 12, 2010

Study: Contaminant-caused diseases costly

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

Childhood diseases caused by exposure to lead, air pollution and other contaminants cost an estimated $380.9 million each year in Maine, according to study to be released today by a University of Maine researcher.

The report is believed to be the first to place a price on childhood environmental health in Maine, and it comes as the state is working to reduce lead poisonings and regulate hazardous chemicals in children's products.

But it also is clearly a rough estimate -- and a conservative one, according to its author -- because little is known about how pollution and environmental factors can contribute to cancers or disorders such as autism.

''This report really is just kind of the tip of the iceberg. It outlines what we can say from the little we do know,'' said Mary Davis, an environmental economist who authored the report.

Davis is an adjunct assistant professor at UMaine and an assistant professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The findings help make clear the huge economic value of investing in efforts to prevent diseases, she said.

Davis examined Maine's rates of childhood lead poisoning, asthma, cancer and neurobehavioral disorders such as mental retardation and autism.

While lead poisoning is by its nature an environmental disease, it's not known what percentages of the others are caused by environmental factors or other things, such as heredity.

Davis used assumptions about environmental causes that have been used in other studies of other states, as well as in a national study published in 2002.

That study estimated the national costs of childhood environmental diseases to be $9.2 billion a year.

Davis said she came up with a range of estimated costs in Maine of $319 million to $484 million.

The Maine estimates are slightly higher than those for other states, which was expected because of Maine's higher rates of childhood asthma and cancers, Davis said.

''It wasn't very surprising,'' she said.

The high cost of lead poisonings has been well-documented because the causes and effects are clear, she said.

Her study, as well as others, assumes a loss of future income based on long-term damage from lead poisonings, which represent the bulk of the estimated costs.

The estimates for other diseases represent only the more immediate costs because long-term impacts are less understood.

And they are based on rough estimates of how many cases are caused by environmental factors.

Like other researchers, she estimated that 5 percent of childhood cancers and 10 percent of neurobehavioral conditions can be attributed to environmental conditions.

Davis added rates of ADD/ADHD to that category, although it wasn't included in the national study.

Davis said she will present her report to colleagues at UMaine in Orono today.

She has had it informally reviewed by some economic and environmental health experts, although it has not been formally peer-reviewed by a scientific journal, she said.

Andy Smith, the Maine state toxicologist, received a copy of the report Thursday and said it is the first such effort he is aware of.

Some of the cost estimates are based on well-established links between the environment and health, he said.

''The idea that lead has effects on IQ is very well-established, and economists have been able to put dollar values on IQs,'' he said.

With such conditions as ADD, however, ''It's just not as well-developed. It's harder to make a good estimate.''

Smith said the research could help people make the connection between pollution and health costs.

''It's important to realize there are real economic costs associated with these types of environmental diseases,'' he said.

''That's why we got lead out of gasoline. That's why we banned lead in paint and that's why we continue to have the goal of eliminating childhood lead poisonings in Maine.''

Although the issues have been around for a while, he said, ''What's new is to see someone put on paper the number for the state of Maine.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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