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Tallying the health costs of climate change

November 08, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • A firefighter surveys a scene at the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County.
A firefighter surveys a scene at the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Six climate change-related events taking place between 2000 and 2009 cost the U.S. about $14 billion in health costs, researchers reported Monday in the journal Health Affairs.

Most of those costs -- 95% -- were attributable to the value of lost lives, they wrote. About $740 million originated in "760,000 encounters with the health care system."

The coauthors, affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School in Berkeley and UC San Francisco wrote that their article was "a first attempt to synthesize health data from the literature on events related to climate change and to develop a uniform method of quantifying their health costs."

The events they studied are the types of climate-related disasters that are expected to occur more often in the future as the Earth's climate warms, they said.

The researchers looked at a study of U.S. ozone air pollution between 2000 and 2002 to gauge the costs of ozone pollution.  For heat waves, they examined the California heat wave of 2006. For hurricanes, they looked at Florida's 2004 hurricane season, in which the state experienced four major storms in one month.

The West Nile outbreak in Louisiana, from 2002, was their case study for infectious disease.   For flooding, the team consulted data from the Red River floods in North Dakota of the spring of 2009. Last, they looked at the Southern California wildfires of 2003, which burned 736,597 acres.

The researchers searched the academic literature for reports of injuries and deaths. They based costs of premature death on "value of a statistical life" approach, a measure recommended for economic research by the Environmental Protection Agency.  They assigned a value of $7.8 million in 2008 dollars for a lost life. Costs of illness included medical care expenses and money lost in missed days of work.

In all, the events resulted in 1,689 premature deaths, 8,992 hospitalizations, 21,113 emergency department visits, and 734,398 outpatient visits.  Ozone pollution and the heat wave were the most expensive, with health costs of $6.5 billion and $5.4 billion, respectively.  

The study didn't include chronic health effects, lost leisure time, lost school days or a number of other costs, the authors wrote.  But the exercise could help policy makers plan for the effects of climate change in the coming decades, they said.

"A better understanding of the range of economic impacts of climate change on health risks could help prioritize preparedness efforts to reduce vulnerability, costs and losses," they concluded.

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