Health care has become such an expensive endeavor — consuming roughly an eighth of all the money our economy generates — that even small improvements in health can save a lot of money. A recent study, mentioned here in the Seattle P-I, looks just at the health costs — care for asthma, cancer, lead pollution, and the like — resulting from exposure to manufactured chemicals. And according to Dr. Kate Davies, the study’s author, the costs are pretty sizeable:

Davies said the environmental health costs associated with children’s conditions is roughly .7 percent of the state gross national product, while environmental health costs for adults equates to 1 percent of the local annual GNP.

Which means that the health costs of a polluted environment rack up to about, oh, $4 billion a year or so in Washington State alone, at least by this estimate.

I’m not sure how much sway cost-benefit analyses should hold over environmental policy. Not only does the classic cost-benefit framework tend to sidestep fairness (why should I pay if someone else benefits?), but perhaps more importantly, cost-benefit analyses can overvalue short-term and concrete costs and benefits, while undervaluing the long-term and nebulous ones. Still, cost-benefit analysis can be an important tool if used wisely. And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that if lead, for example, had been required to pass through a rigorous cost-benefit analysis before it was added to paint and gasoline, there’s no way we’d still be paying the costs today.

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