Analyzing data from two popular Orange County beaches, Newport and Huntington, researchers estimate that swimming in these coastal waters costs the public $3.3 million per year in health-related expenses. The calculation is based on lost wages and medical care to treat more than 74,000 incidents of stomach illness, respiratory disease and eye, ear and skin infections caused by exposure to the polluted waters in a typical year.
This is the first study to estimate the economic impact of illnesses associated with polluted recreational waters, although similar calculations have been done regarding air pollution. A public health cost assessment like this can be a useful tool for officials evaluating the cost-benefit of projects to treat sewage and urban runoff headed for local beaches.
“The ultimate value of this research is for policymakers, who are well aware of the substantial costs involved with cleaning up water pollution, but need to know the other side of the equation – the costs associated with not cleaning up the water,” said lead author Ryan Dwight, who conducted the research at UC Irvine's Department of Environmental Health, Science and Policy. This is the latest in a series of published studies by Dwight showing that urban runoff is the primary source of coastal water pollution in this area, and that surfers frequenting polluted urban coastal waters get sick more often than surfers in rural areas.
The findings are reported in the online version of the Journal of Environmental Management.
The estimated cost, which the researchers describe as conservative, includes lost income based on typical Orange County salaries and medical expenses based on doctors’ fees, and assumes that the illnesses take on various levels of severity. Additional costs for self-treatment (such as purchasing over-the-counter medicine) and potential costs to the local tourism industry, the health care system and society at large are not included in the valuation.
“This estimate helps us begin to understand the bigger picture of the economic burden imposed on society from polluting our coastal recreational waters,” explained UC Riverside economist Linda Fernandez, co-author of the study.
The researchers emphasize the need for more studies to fully understand the economic impact of coastal water pollution, as it affects tourism, recreational values and other related factors.
The O.C. beaches used in the study receive pollution primarily from treated sewage discharged offshore, and untreated urban runoff which flows directly onto the beaches. During the time of the study, both beaches had water quality well within accepted levels, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. In fact, researchers estimate that if bacteria levels in these coastal waters were exactly at accepted levels, the total health cost would be greater than $7 million per year.
Study co-authors also include Dr. Dean Baker and Betty Olson at UCI, and Jan Semenza at Portland State University.
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