Cost, Value and Environmental Health

August 11, 2011

By Sarah Rosenberg, HSC intern

For as long as people have been fighting for more strict standards for pollution and the use of toxic chemicals, opponents have argued that it’s unnecessarily expensive. But how much does business as usual really cost? 

Judging by a recent study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the answer might be tens of billions more than we had ever imagined. 

Researchers announced that, in 2008 alone, children’s health problems associated with exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals cost the nation $76 billion in medical bills and lost productivity. Such health issues include autism, ADD, asthma, mental disabilities, childhood cancers, and lead/mercury exposure. 

It certainly gives a new meaning to “unnecessarily expensive.” These conditions are often preventable: enhanced regulation of pollution and toxic substances can limit children’s exposure. Since our 56 million students spend the majority of their time at schools, it’s important to make sure that they are a healthy place for kids to be. Too often, though, this is not the case. 

Air quality in particular is an issue, both inside and outside of schools. On the inside, the use of pesticides and chemical cleaners, exacerbated by poor ventilation, exposes children to toxic substances and aggravates asthma. Green cleaning is a straightforward and effective way to address some of these issues, and it gets results. 

As for the outside, the location of the school has a major impact on the health of students and staff, too. Most recently, this was confirmed by a recent study from the University of Michigan, which concluded that Michigan schools in areas with higher levels of pollution had higher levels of absenteeism, an indicator of health issues. However, only five states have laws requiring schools to consider air pollution and other environmental health issues when building a new school. As a result, far too many schools do end up in areas that lead to more unhealthy exposures than we would like for our children. 

The good news is that there is a lot of work that is being done on these issues. Vermont recently became the tenth state to pass a statewide green cleaning law, and several other states are considering similar proposals this year. A lot more attention is also being paid to ventilation in school design.  And, as we wrote about in a blog earlier this year, the EPA recently released the first national guidelines for school siting – they are voluntary guidelines, but it’s a commendable first step. 

Of course, more is needed on both fronts. The effects of pollution and the use of toxic chemicals are often all too easy to dismiss – we can’t see it, and the health problems they cause can seem distant and disconnected. This new finding, though, makes it harder to ignore: even for an economy as large as ours, $76 billion is no small sum. Improving environmental standards may not be free, but failing to act is costing us.