The Heat Is Online

Six US Disasters Cost $13.3 Billiion in Health Costs


Study tallies health costs of disasters tied to climate

Six in U.S. responsible for $13.6 billion in value of lives lost prematurely, it finds

Reuters, Nov. 7, 2011

WASHINGTON — Natural disasters tied to climate change not only cause physical damage but create significant health costs in terms of hospitalizations and lives lost prematurely, according to a study published Monday that looked at six recent disasters in the United States.
The study in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs used the case studies as examples of events that are projected to worsen as the planet warms, the authors said.

These six events resulted in an estimated 1,689 premature deaths, 8,992 hospitalizations, 21,113 emergency room visits and 734,398 outpatient visits, according to the study.

In dollars, the largest cost by far was for premature deaths at $13.3 billion. This number was based on the Environmental Protection Agency's value of a statistical life, $7.6 million, co-author Wendy Max said.

This was not meant to put a value on any one life but to calculate how much people in aggregate would be willing to spend to lessen the risk of death from certain causes, including the events cited in the study.

Scientists and economists from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco estimated the health costs for the following events from 2000 to 2009:

  • U.S. ozone air pollution, 2000-2002, $6.5 billion;
  • West Nile virus outbreak in Louisiana, 2002, $207 million;
  • Southern California wildfires, 2003, $578 million;
  • Florida hurricane season, 2004, $1.4 billion;
  • California heat wave, 2006, $5.3 billion;
  • Red River flooding in North Dakota, 2009, $20 million.
"When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs," said Kim Knowlton, a senior NRDC scientist and a co-author of the study. "The health-care costs never end up on the tab."

"This in no way is going to capture all of the climate-related events that happened in the U.S. over that time period," Knowlton said. "At $14 billion, these numbers are big already."

To put this in context, 14 weather disasters in the United States so far this year have cost at least $14 billion, according to Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground website.

Masters said by email that health costs and deaths are considered in some of the data used to reach this figure.

The study's authors stressed they chose events in the middle of the severity spectrum and left out some notably costly disasters, such as the 2005 hurricane season that included the devastating Hurricane Katrina. In the case of Katrina, the health-care costs were hard to pinpoint.
For Mark Conley of Raymond, Maine, whose 11-year-old son Jake suffers from asthma that gets worse with the rise in ozone air pollution, the calculation is more than dollars and cents.

"On those days that are really bad out there, he doesn't have the lung capacity," Conley said of the son who plays soccer, basketball and baseball. "A lot of times we have to pull him out of the game."

Conley, who runs a heating and air conditioning business, said his monthly health insurance premiums are $1,100 with a $5,000 deductible.
"When does it get to the point where I can't afford it?" Conley said by phone. "What happens when Jake gets worse?"

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters.