The Trump administration has argued that environmental regulations hold back economic productivity. Yet history suggests that the opposite is the case.
Look at phasing out lead in gasoline. To this day, the US receives a $200bn annual economic stimulus package each year because lead levels in children plummeted when the US Environmental Protection Agency moved to protect children.
Now, we realize that a larger suite of chemicals can disrupt hormones and cost our economy.
We’re talking not just about chemicals in cosmetics, but also in food packaging, aluminum cans, agriculture, electronics, carpeting and furniture. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are recognized as a major public health threat by the Endocrine Society, the World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Yes, that’s 2.3% of the US gross domestic product.
The key drivers of these costs in the US are the effects of flame retardants and pesticides on the developing brains of children. If one child loses IQ points, the parent or teacher may not even notice. But if, for example, 100,000 children lose an IQ point, the entire economy notices.
Each IQ point in a child is worth about 2% of their lifetime economic productivity. So if the average child makes $1m over her or his lifetime, this means an IQ point is worth about $20,000. Add up an IQ point across all of the 4,000,000 children born in the US each year, and the long line of zeros means big costs.
Getting lead out of gasoline shows the power of IQ points and the economic impact of doing the right thing and preventing these exposures.
I tell the undergraduates I teach at NYU that they are four to seven IQ points smarter because we got lead out of gasoline and paint. That reduced lead levels in kids by about 15 micrograms per deciliter, producing cohorts of kids who are $200bn more productive over their lifetimes than kids born in the 1970s. That equates to a tax refund of roughly $700 per person that we still get today as more children are born free of this exposure.
Unfortunately, these benefits are undermined by newer exposures that disrupt brain development, and prevent gains in cognitive potential that we otherwise achieve through stronger education and other social changes for the better.
Add in costs due to increases in obesity, diabetes, endometriosis, fibroids, infertility, cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer, and you get to that large total.
But what’s also striking is the impact of policy on these exposures, and how they differ across the Atlantic. It turns out these policies can have big impacts on people’s exposure.