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Groundbreaking study quantifies health costs of climate-change related disasters in the US

Recent set of climate change related events resulted in billions in health costs and lost lives

Health costs exceeding $14 billion dollars, 21,000 emergency room visits, nearly 1,700 deaths, and 9,000 hospitalizations are among the staggering impacts of six climate change-related events in the United States during the last decade, according to a first-of-its-kind study published in November 2011 edition of the journal Health Affairs.

"When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs. The healthcare costs never end up on the tab, but that doesn't mean they're not there," said lead author Kim Knowlton, DrPH, assistant clinical professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and Senior Scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Right now, there's a gaping hole in our understanding of the health-related costs of climate change. This report begins the work to fill that void. Only by having a clear sense of health impacts and their costs, can we work to reduce them."

The analysis spotlights cases in six specific categories in the U.S. occurring during 2002 through 2009, including: Florida hurricanes, North Dakota floods, California heat waves and wild fires, nationwide ozone air pollution, and West Nile virus outbreaks in Louisiana (which were tied to warmer weather and changes in precipitation patterns). The study is the first to develop a uniform method of quantifying the associated health costs for extreme weather and disease events that are expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Researchers found that the six categories of events resulted in an estimated 1,689 premature deaths, 8,992 hospitalizations, 21,113 emergency room visits, and 734,398 outpatient visits, totaling over 760,000 encounters with the health care system. Extreme climate-change related events are projected to increase in severity and frequency as climate change continues to go unchecked.

Only 13 U.S. states currently include public health measures in their climate change adaptation plans. With a better understanding of the economic impacts and health risks, as offered by the study, government agencies and key players can create effective partnerships for climate-health preparedness that aggressively limit and reduce public health damage.

"Investments in climate change mitigation at the local, state and national levels, married with analyses of the climate change health costs to inform this strategic planning, will save billions of dollars in health costs and save lives," notes Dr. Knowlton.

This week Congresswoman Lois Capps (D - CA) proposed the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act. The bill would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategic action plan to assist health professionals in preparing for and responding to the public health effects of climate change.

About Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922 as one of the first three public health academies in the nation, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 300 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,000 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP), the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit

About the Natural Resources Defense Council

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.3 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Livingston, MT, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing. More information on NRDC is available at its Web site:

Stephanie Berger | EurekAlert!
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