Cold homes are more likely to kill than hot ones.

As the frequency and severity of heatwaves increases, vulnerable households are foregoing airconditioning due to rising electricity costs, according to new research out of RMIT.

The university’s Heatwaves, Homes & Health research project interviewed 36 households with older residents or infants in Melbourne, Cairns and Dubbo over 12 months, finding that many were not switching on airconditioners during hot weather, and concern over cost was the most common reason.

Many of those surveyed also lived in housing with poor thermal performance, meaning it was more difficult to maintain a suitable temperature. Half were renters and 70 per cent were on low incomes.

Elderly people were most likely to be self-rationing, and were also underestimating their vulnerability to extreme heat, increasing the risk of adverse outcomes. Younger families were more likely to continue using airconditioning, but were foregoing buying things such as groceries or school books to pay for their high bills.

Lead researcher Dr Larissa Nicholls said four out of five households now had airconditioning, which was a major shift from 30 years ago when fans, cool water and reducing activity were key strategies.

“These are healthy and cost-effective options for younger, healthy people,” she said. “But for people who are elderly, frail, suffering health conditions made worse by extreme heat, air conditioning can be important to safely get through a heatwave.”

With many states looking into demand management schemes over the summer period, Dr Nicholls is concerned that messaging could work to exacerbate rationing amongst the vulnerable, with the study pointing to many older people having a “sense of responsibility” to the community to minimise power use, even though it could put their health at risk.

“When we face electricity shortages, the public appeals to ‘safely reduce electricity use’ should clearly excuse the elderly and unwell from responding,” Dr Nicholls said.

“Otherwise there is a real danger that community-minded older people quit using their airconditioning regardless of the health impacts.”

The research found “unhealthy self-rationing” would not significantly help the grid because these households were typically low energy users already.

We need to increase housing performance

The research listed boosting the efficiency of poor quality housing stock as a priority area, though required government intervention.

“For private or public rental tenants, or home-owners on low-incomes, home improvements to reduce heat such as effective insulation and shading, were out of their reach,” Dr Nicholls said.

Suggestions include programs to promote economical home ventilation, such as windows and security doors that can be left open at night, encouraging the installation and use of ceiling fans, targeted programs to increase solar PV or other microgeneration for vulnerable households, as well as general energy efficiency upgrades.

The Victorian government recently announced it was pursuing energy-efficient retrofit programs for low-income households.

“There are a range of other ways to improve health outcomes from heatwaves – including improvements to housing, concession schemes and services to vulnerable households,” Dr Nicholls said.

“We also need research into how to provide more freely accessible cool public spaces for people to visit in heatwaves.”

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