Health cost of 6 U,S, climate disasters: $14 bln

Mon Nov 7, 2011 4:00pm EST

Related Topics

* Focus on health costs from flood, heat, drought

* Premature deaths account for 95 percent of cost

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Deaths and health problems from floods, drought and other U.S. disasters related to climate change cost an estimated $14 billion over the last decade, researchers said on Monday.

"When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs," said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council and a co-author of the study. "The healthcare costs never end up on the tab."

The study in the journal Health Affairs looked at the cost of human suffering and loss of life due to six disasters from 2000-2009.

"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.

Scientists and economists from the non-profit NRDC, 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.

GETTING WORSE AS PLANET WARMS

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 healthcare costs were hard to pinpoint.

The six case studies are examples of events related to climate change 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.

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?"

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