Climate change impacting health care to the tune of $820B a year

Climate change is not just affecting the Earth and our air, it’s now affecting health care.

A new report finds the financial impact tops $820 billion in health costs each year, and it could cost all of us more in the future.

Sniffling, sneezing, asthma and allergies. Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency medical physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she sees the impacts of climate change firsthand in her ER.

“I often talk about a 4-year-old girl who arrived for her third asthma visit that week, driven by factors like climate intensified pollen and air pollution,” she said.

A big concern: climatologists say rising temperatures and air pollution can make pollen seasons longer and more intense.

“Last year, 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record globally and was the Earth’s 44th year in a row with above-average temperatures,” said Dr. Vijay Limaye, climate and health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Asthma rates keep going up year after year, too. There’s a cost to that care.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates show in 2007, asthma alone cost the U.S. $56 billion in medical costs, lost school and work days, and early deaths.

Fast forward to 2021 when the NRDC says climate change costs the U.S. more than $820 billion a year, in part through premature deaths and physical and mental health treatments.

“Right now, this country is shouldered with hundreds of billions of dollars each year in climate and fossil fuel-related health problems,” Limaye said.

“We’re not just talking about the direct costs of medical care, but all of the downstream costs that are involved with hospital stays, including lost wages, and subsequent need for outpatient care and prescription medications.”

For example, the NRDC said in 2010 that oak pollen resulted in more than 21,000 asthma-related ER visits, costing $11.4 million.

“The costs in our health system are already some of the most expensive in the world. And thus, these implications are significant as we face increasing healthcare system damage and disruption by climate change,” Salas said.

“The NRDC report provides some well-known examples of the often-overlooked impacts of climate change and fossil fuels, which can create a large but mostly hidden burden on society through health and environmental damages. The examples are helpful for thinking about the pros and cons of reducing our carbon footprint,” said Damian C. Adams, Ph.D., J.D., University of Florida Research Foundation professor and term professor.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that over the last three years, there have been 50 weather and climate disasters in the U.S., with losses exceeding $237 billion.

How NRDC gathered their data:

“We compiled health studies on fossil fuel-generated air pollution and climate-related events (national ones when possible), tabulated the health cost burden (using consistent valuation methods for premature mortality and a range of healthcare costs), and applied inflation adjustments to convert annual cost estimates to 2020 dollars. As noted in the report, the $820 billion figure for the annual total is a conservative estimate due to data limitations, the true price tag of these exposures is likely to be significantly higher given our understanding of the scope of climate-related health risks across the country.”
Dr. Vijay Limaye, Staff Scientist, Climate & Health Science Center, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL

Reporter:Veronica Marshall
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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