In from the cold
Shockingly, almost 1600 Kiwi deaths each winter are attributed to our cold houses. Here’s what we can do to ward off the worst of winter.
Shockingly, almost 1600 Kiwi deaths each winter are attributed to our cold houses. Here’s what we can do.
The first cold snap of winter is always a shock, especially after an indifferent summer such as the one we’ve had. It’s the first reminder of how well – or how badly – your home insulation and heating measure up to the coming challenge. And it’s a rude wake-up call for those – almost half of us, according to a recent Statistics New Zealand survey – who say they live in a cold house. In some cases, the houses of the 48% of Kiwis who are shivering are extremely cold. Research published in 2010 by the Building Research Association (Branz) found that the average evening temperature of New Zealand living rooms during the winter was 17.8°C – below the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of 18°C. But some were a chilly 10°C. This year, Branz found that almost a third of rental houses feel damp, compared with just 11% of owner-occupied houses.
Damp houses are much harder to heat than dry ones and the health consequences of cold, damp houses are well known.
Children, in particular, are at increased risk of respiratory problems. Just this week, a report published by the Child Poverty Action Group (see box opposite) singled out bronchioectasis, a life-threatening disease that results from repeated chest infections in early childhood.
The report quotes Asthma and Respiratory Foundation figures showing the incidence of bronchioectasis, which causes lifetime lung damage, almost trebled between 2001 and 2015. Substandard housing, it said, has been identified as “the most important risk factor” in a range of childhood respiratory diseases.
Older people, too, are at higher risk of cardiovascular illness from living in cold
“Their blood pressure was much higher, because their bodies were struggling to keep warm.” “Even in much colder Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, few such winter deaths occur.”
houses. According to Philippa HowdenChapman, professor of public health at the University of Otago, that’s because being cold stresses the immune system, puts a burden on the cardiovascular system and makes the muscles work harder in the form of shivering, which helps the body generate heat.
“We know that being cold has an impact on older people’s circulation, in particular because the blood gets more viscous and is more likely to form plaques, and people are more likely to have atrial fibrillation, or stroke and malfunctioning of their heart.”
Her research has found many New Zealanders report shivering in their houses; a recent study involving 656 teenagers from 17 low-decile schools, for example, found that 70% reported shivering at least once during the winter. And she says the time-honoured New Zealand tradition of putting on another jersey or piling more blankets onto your bed is not the answer. A recent Japanese study compared a group of healthy volunteers who slept at a temperature of 22°C with those who slept at 12°C but with access to as many blankets as they wanted.
“When members of the second group got up in the morning, their blood pressure was much higher, because their bodies were struggling to keep warm.”
Those findings are echoed in a 2014 Scottish study that found that people living in houses with temperatures below 18°C were more likely to suffer from high blood pressure than those living in houses where the temperature was 18°C or higher. The risk was even higher once the temperature dropped below 16°C.
Howden-Chapman, the director of the university’s He Kainga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme, has been instrumental in putting the spotlight on the poor quality of many New Zealand houses. In her 2015 book, Home Truth: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, she wrote that she was often embarrassed by the reaction of overseas audiences when she talked about New Zealand housing and our high winter mortality rate.
About 1600 deaths each winter are attributable to cold housing, most of them from respiratory and circulatory problems among older people. New Zealand is not alone in this, she wrote, “but it is one of only a few countries – the others being Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and Greece – that have noticeable winter deaths. Even in much colder, continental countries such as Canada, the Scandinavian countries and Russia, few such winter deaths occur.”
She says we could achieve the same outcomes as in those cold countries if our houses had proper insulation and energy-efficient heating to keep them at the WHO-recommended temperature of 18-21°C.
And she has the evidence to prove it. In 2012, she worked with non-profit research institute Motu Economics to evaluate the first 45,000 homes retrofitted with insulation under the Government-funded Warm Up New Zealand programme. They found that the programme had a 6:1 benefit-tocost ratio for children and older people, and a 4:1 ratio overall. In other words, every dollar spent on insulation provided $4-6 worth of benefits, mainly by way of reductions in health expenditure because of fewer hospital stays and lower pharmaceutical costs. The programme also saved lives: one for every 1000 insulated houses.
Warm Up New Zealand provides subsidies of 33-60% towards the cost of retrofitting homes with ceiling and underfloor insulation. It’s had several iterations since it began in 2009 and by the end of June 2016 had provided a total of $447 million to help insulate 291,000 New Zealand houses.
The programme’s latest – and, at this point, final – version, which is funded to the tune of $18 million and ends in July 2018, focuses on landlords with tenants who have Community Services Cards or health conditions caused by cold, damp housing. The subsidy is intended to help landlords meet the requirement to insulate their rental properties by July 1, 2019.
By the end of March, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), which administers the programme, had paid
out 2946 grants to cover half the cost of retrofitting insulation in rental properties.
Howden-Chapman is disappointed that given its proven health benefits, Warm Up New Zealand is winding down, particularly as she estimates that there are still 600,000900,000 New Zealand houses with no or inadequate insulation.
“It’s very difficult with the type of houses we have, especially with the older ones, to keep them warm. That means it’s absolutely essential that all homes are insulated, which
is why I lament the Government’s decision.”
Arthur Grimes, senior fellow at Motu Economics and former chairman of the Reserve Bank, agrees that it makes financial sense to continue with some targeted insulation subsidies, especially for homeowners aged 60 or older who are at the greatest risk of developing circulatory problems.
“This is where you get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to insulation. They might not have heart disease now, but they may get it later, and I would say that as
a group they should be targeted.”
Many people assume that installing insulation will reduce their power bills, but Grimes says that in most cases people spend much the same on energy – but they are much warmer and healthier. “That was a pretty crucial finding we made when we did the evaluation, and it was different from what the officials were expecting, which was savings in energy bills. They did fall a minimal
From top, public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman; economist Arthur Grimes.