Science + Technology

Chemical exposures cost California an estimated $2.6 billion, research shows

Policy report endorsed by 127 University of California faculty members

Existing state laws regulating the production and use of hazardous chemicals have serious gaps and fail to protect public health and the environment, according to a new report released today by researchers at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley.
As a result of this inadequate oversight, chemical- and pollution-related diseases among children and workers in California cost the state's insurers, businesses and families an estimated $2.6 billion in direct and indirect costs, says the report, which includes a set of recommended policy reforms for the state.
In 2004, more than 200,000 California workers were diagnosed with deadly, chronic diseases, such as cancer and emphysema, attributable to chemical exposures in the workplace, according to the report. Another 4,400 died as a result of those diseases. The new findings, based on well-established methodology for analyzing economic impact, indicate that those diseases resulted in $1.4 billion in both direct medical costs and indirect costs that include lost wages and benefits.
An additional $1.2 billion in direct and indirect costs is attributed to 240,000 cases of preventable childhood diseases related to environmental exposure to chemical substances, the report says.
The existing problems and recommended policy changes are detailed in the report, "Green Chemistry: Cornerstone to a Sustainable California," which has been endorsed by 127 faculty members from seven UC campuses, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The California Environmental Protection Agency commissioned the Centers for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at UC Berkeley and UCLA to prepare the report. COEH is a multidisciplinary research program based at the UC campuses of Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco in Northern California, and Irvine and Los Angeles in Southern California. Additional funding for the report came from the UC Office of the President, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This report, for the first time, puts cost estimates on the consequences for Californians of current chemical and product management policies," said COEH director Dr. John Balmes, a professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley and a professor of medicine at UCSF. "California has shown that creating new jobs and investment opportunities can go hand in hand with protecting human health and the environment. We have been doing this with vehicle emissions and energy use, and this new report makes it obvious that we will need to do the same with chemicals and products."
The report was written by Michael Wilson and Dr. Megan Schwarzman, both COEH research scientists at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health; Timothy Malloy, professor at the UCLA School of Law; Elinor Fanning, COEH assistant director of research at UCLA; and Peter Sinsheimer, a COEH affiliate and director of the Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The report presents data from the California's Department of Toxic Substances Control showing that 61 of the state's 85 largest hazardous waste sites are leaking toxic material directly into groundwater. In addition, an estimated 1 million California women of reproductive age have blood mercury levels that exceed what the U.S. EPA considers safe for fetal development, and biomonitoring studies have detected more than 100 synthetic chemicals and pollutants in breast milk, umbilical-cord blood, and other bodily fluids and tissues, the report says.
With global chemical production predicted to increase 330 percent by 2050, health problems related to environmental contamination are likely to grow unless comprehensive steps are taken now, the report's authors say. "Green chemistry" — the use of renewable and safer raw materials, manufacturing processes and products — offers a sustainable solution, according to the report.
"Research conducted in the past decade has provided ample evidence of significant health impacts from exposure to toxic chemicals," said John Froines, COEH director at UCLA and a professor of environmental health sciences. "It is timely for California to reduce the use of toxic agents through innovative technological approaches available through green chemistry. New policies that prevent hazards rather than cleaning up problems after the fact will foster innovation and help green chemistry emerge as a central part of our economy."
The report calls on California to lead the nation in implementing a comprehensive approach to the management of chemicals and products. Policy recommendations include:
  • Passing new laws to remedy the insufficient data available on the toxicity of chemicals so that California businesses, regulators and consumers can make informed choices about the products they use.
  • Providing California agencies with a new legal framework to enable them to act when there are reasonable concerns about a product's safety, even when complete hazard or tracking data are unavailable.
  • Investing in the design of chemicals, materials and manufacturing processes that are inherently safer for humans.
Some of these recommendations echo a 2006 UC report to the California Legislature on green chemistry policy, which contributed to the introduction of new state legislation in 2007 to require improved reporting on the sale of high-quantity chemicals and reductions in some uses of the most toxic chemicals. That legislation is expected to be reintroduced in 2008.
Several authors of the report are available for interviews with journalists:
  • At UC Berkeley, Michael Wilson can be reached at (510) 333-1460, and Dr. Megan Schwarzman can be reached at (415) 846-1392 or
A PDF of the report is available from the the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at (2.14 MB).
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