sandy beach full of bathersA team of UWindsor researchers say their study can inform policy-makers in Canada and the United States whether it makes economic sense to hire more lifeguards or invest in beach safety education.

Study shows economic cost of drownings off Great Lakes beaches

Drownings off beaches along the Great Lakes cost the economies of Canada and the United States more than $130 million each year, a team of UWindsor researchers has found.

Geographer Chris Houser, dean of the Faculty of Science, and economics professors Marcelo Arbex and Christian Trudeau have collaborated on a study published recently in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management. Their research estimates the long-term economic impact of drownings due to waves and currents. The calculation is in addition to the cost of emergency services and hospitalizations related to drownings.

The study, which uses an actuarial calculation referred to as the Value of a Statistical Life Year expressed in Canadian dollars, can help policy-makers on both sides of the border make decisions on whether to hire more lifeguards or invest in public education about beach safety, Dr. Houser said.

“Typically, these interventions require a cost-benefit analysis based on the economic impact of surf-related drownings,” he said. “Hopefully our study will be eye-opening for them and make the decision easier.”

There are, on average, about 50 drowning deaths each year associated with near-shore waves and currents in the Great Lakes. Last year, as families headed to the beach to combat pandemic isolation, 74 people died in surf-related drownings. Many of the fatalities were adolescents and children who otherwise would have had long, productive lives ahead of them.

The researchers estimate the total economic burden of surf-related drowning fatalities over the past 10 years to be in excess of $1.3 billion.

Houser explained the estimate doesn’t consider the full human toll of surf-related drownings.

“It’s important to note that this estimate of economic impact does not consider the emotional impact associated with drowning events.”

Most surf-related drownings occur on beaches without lifeguards, or on supervised beaches at times when lifeguards aren’t on duty.

“Lifeguards are the most effective strategy for reducing drownings directly through rescues and indirectly through interventions on unsafe behaviour,” Houser said.

The study supports the calls for beach safety education programs and additional lifeguards made by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a non-profit group that maintains the public database used in the study.

Houser said there seems to be little public interest in surf-related drownings compared to other natural hazards or public health concerns. He said he hopes this study will help change that.

“We are trying to show there is value in increased safety, and more specifically, value in reducing the risk of death due to drowning on beaches throughout the Great Lakes region.”

—Sarah Sacheli