America spends a staggering $76.6 billion every year to cover the health expenses of our children who get sick because of exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution, according to a recent study by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. That figure includes the cost of medical care and the lost workdays of parents caring for their kids. The inestimable costs of exposure to things like lead in homes and soot in the air include children with severe learning impairment and chronic asthma, among many others.

Enforcing pollution laws would reduce illness in kids and adults alike. Investment in clean technologies, including those that reduce pollution, would make this profitable from two perspectives — avoided cost and new businesses.

Some investors are getting the message, but not necessarily in the U.S. or European Union. Venture capitalists increased cleantech spending in the first quarter of 2011 some 54 percent over the same period last year. But the U.S. fell to 17th on a list of the top 38 cleantech investment nations for all types of capital — China is first, followed closely by Denmark, Germany, Brazil, and Lithuania. Yes, the U.S. is behind Lithuania in a race we can’t afford to lose.

And enlightened government regulation leads to innovation that investors can follow in these emerging fields. The researchers that uncovered the $76.6 billion in health-care costs called for mandates to test the toxicity of chemicals already in commerce, incorporating new assessment technologies to get the widest and most reliable results. That kind of “green chemistry” regulation will lead to new businesses to perform the testing, new chemicals and natural replacements for toxic ones, and clever new cradle-to-cradle designs (thank you Bill McDonough) of everything from baby bottles to sofas.

It all boils down to two simple rules:

  1. Invest now or pay later (well, actually we’re already paying for our mistakes, but consider it a $76.6 billion wakeup call).
  2. Help America invest in these clean technologies — and support regulations that provide certainty — or watch China and Lithuania do it.