Unfair access to air leaves the vulnerable feeling the heat

Rising electricity prices and vague public messaging put vulnerable households at greater danger from extreme heat, new research from RMIT University shows.

The 12-month Heatwaves, Homes & Health research project interviewed 36 households with older residents or infants in three different climate zones — Melbourne, Dubbo and Cairns. Health and community service workers were also surveyed about cooling practices and air conditioning use in heat vulnerable households.

Many of the households at risk live in poor quality homes that heat up quickly and cool down slowly. They also face considerable financial challenges.

Lead researcher, Dr Larissa Nicholls from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, said that many vulnerable households were not using air conditioning due to the rising cost of electricity.

“About four out of five Australian households now have air conditioners,” Nicholls said.

“This is a major shift from 30 years ago when most households looked after their health with fans, cool water, and slowing down their activities on hot days.

“These are healthy and cost-effective options for younger, healthy people. 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.

“Concern about the cost of electricity was the most common reason heat vulnerable households were not using air conditioning during heatwaves. Among health and community service workers concerned about unhealthy self-rationing of air conditioning, 66% said it was ‘very common’.”

The study mostly found self-rationing of air conditioning due to electricity costs in older households. Households with infants were often struggling to pay high electricity bills from using air conditioning – particularly in Dubbo and Cairns.

“Three quarters of the social service professionals surveyed said that it is common for households to be experiencing financial stress because of their air conditioning use,” Nicholls said.

“This has a clear impact on family wellbeing. For example, some households sacrificed buying groceries or school books for their children to pay high electricity bills.”

Poor quality housing exposed vulnerable households to hotter conditions and for longer periods, increasing the risk of health impacts and/or the costs of running air conditioning.

“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,” Nicholls said.

“There are a range of other ways to improve health outcomes from heatwaves – including improvements to housing, concession schemes, and services to vulnerable households. We also need research into how to provide more freely accessible cool public spaces for people to visit in heatwaves.”

The study also looked at how public messaging to reduce electricity use in extreme heat could affect heat vulnerable households. “When we face electricity shortages, the public appeals to ‘safely reduce electricity use’ should clearly excuse the elderly and unwell from responding. Otherwise there is a real danger that community-minded older people quit using their air conditioning regardless of the health impacts,” Nicholls said.

The study found that heat vulnerability needed to be better understood and considered in energy policy and demand management initiatives – to ensure equitable and healthy outcomes for consumers of this essential service.The study was funded by Energy Consumers Australia.

Heatwaves, Homes & Health is available here:http://cur.org.au/cms/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/heatwaves-homes-and-health-rmit_full-report.pdf

For interviews: Dr Larissa Nicholls, (03) 9925 9012, 0400 062 927 or larissa.nicholls@rmit.edu.au

For general media enquiries: James Giggacher, (03) 9925 4143, 0413 665 143 or james.giggacher@rmit.edu.au.