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 & 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.