The financial and personal costs of natural disasters related to climate change are far higher than previously estimated, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of California, San Francisco.

Policy changes based on this information and future research are needed to prevent astronomical health-related costs in the future, a panel of experts said during a teleconference Wednesday.

The NRDC used 10 disasters that occurred in 2012, which was a particularly bad year for these events, as examples of what awaits the United States and the world in the future if changes are not made now. The point of the research, whose title is "The Costly Health Harms of Climate Change," was to show the unaccounted-for and underestimated health-care costs that accompany major disasters. The peer-reviewed results will be published in the journal GeoHealth.

“We connected the health impact from each of the 10 case studies with the health-related costs and found there were $10 billion in health-care damages alone,” said Dr. Vijay Limaye, the study’s lead author and climate change and health science fellow at the NRDC Science Center. “We have to expand the conversation on climate change impacts to include the health costs created by it. We can’t afford to do anything less.”

Dr. Wendy Max, the study’s co-author and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco Institute for Health & Aging, added, “The public usually thinks of property loss such as homes, crops and infrastructure. We looked at health costs, including lost work time, emergency room visits, hospitalizations, mental health impacts and others.”

The largest share of the $10 billion in health-care costs was accumulated by the victims of Superstorm Sandy that struck New Jersey and New York in the fall of 2012. The study set the death toll for the storm at 273, slightly higher than other reports because it included related deaths in areas outside the two states, the panel said.

Even the $3.1 billion is probably an underestimation of the real health costs because “it does not count the long-term problems,” Max said. It is critical to consider the “potential burden [of health-care costs] that we are facing with climate change.”

“Evidence indicates that sea level rise due to climate change amplified the Sandy storm surge,” the report said. “The NRDC research tallied health costs for an estimated 6,602 hospitalizations and 4,673 emergency room visits. Health problems included storm injuries; pregnancy complications; carbon monoxide poisoning; heart attacks; stroke; kidney ailments; dehydration; and mental health problems including anxiety, substance abuse and mood disorders,” the report said.

Another example of the health costs for climate-change related disasters cited in the report was the heat wave that struck Wisconsin in July 2012, which resulted in $252 million in health-care costs. Besides the 27 deaths it led to, there were 155 hospitalizations and 1,620 emergency room visits. Wisconsin usually has five to 12 days a year when the temperature climbs above 90 degrees.

“That number is expected to triple by mid-century. We need to prepare for extreme heat events,” said Megan Christenson, epidemiologist for the Climate and Health Program and Environmental Public Health Tracking Program at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

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