What are the health implications of living in a cold home? 

Whilst climate change has a reputation as a rather distant, nebulous issue, your MP will be looking for issues to take up which make it possible to see the tangible difference being made for their constituents. Speaking with your MP about the health implications of poorly insulated homes could be one way to help your MP take steps to improve the lives of their constituents whilst tackling climate change also, regardless of their view on climate change.

Cold homes is a serious problem for health, especially for vulnerable people such as the elderly and asthma sufferers. Improving the efficiency of housing has the co-benefits of reducing health risks without an increase in the use of high-carbon energy.

The Keeping Warm In Later Life Project (KWILLT) researched the decision making processes people use with regards to heating their homes. The project found that this process is incredibly complex, and is not always due to a person being unable to afford their electricity bills. For example, a widow whose husband used to take care of the bills may not understand how to do this. As such, many people are living in homes that are not heated adequately, causing and exacerbating health problems.

As the decision making process around heating one’s home is so complex, there is not a clear solution to the problem. However, improving the efficiency of housing is a good place to start. Much work has been done on this already, such as the Warm Front energy initiative which awarded grants for people with a particular health need and were receiving benefits or a pension. Public Health England released the most recent Cold Weather Plan in October 2016. In this report it is stated “The reasons [for excess winter deaths] are complex and interlinked with inadequate heating and poorly insulated housing and health inequality”. (page 3).

Mental health

Cold homes can have mental health implications. Living in a cold, damp house can lead to worry and stress about affording bill payments, one’s own discomfort from living in a cold house and the implications this may have on health. A person living in a house such as this may be reluctant to invite friends over, leading to isolation and a further stressor on one’s mental health. Research has found that improvements to housing energy efficiency is associated with significant improvements to mental well-being.

Heat Waves

Climate projections indicate that annual mean temperatures will be around 2 to 5 degrees Celsius higher than present in the UK by 2080. Heatwaves are likely to become more frequent in the future in the UK. At present, the health burden due to low temperature exceeds that of high temperature. However, heat-related mortality, which is currently around 2,000 premature deaths per year, is projected to increase steeply in the UK throughout the 21st  century, from around a 70% increase in the 2020s to around 540% in the 2080s

The heatwave during the 2003 summer resulted in over 2,000 excess deaths across England and Wales (HPA) Over the whole of Europe during this heatwave more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded. This means that hospitals, health centres and care homes will be adversely affected by high temperatures during heatwaves. The elderly are more vulnerable to extreme heat and cold than younger people, so future health burdens are likely to be amplified by the ageing population.    

Southern, central and eastern England appear to be most vulnerable to current and future effects of hot weather compared with other UK regions. Warmer summers in the UK may increase population exposure to UV radiation due to increased time spent outdoors. This could increase health risks associated with UV including some skin cancers.

With higher UK temperatures, there is also the potential for introduction of exotic species and pathogens. Potential drivers of these changes include milder winters and warmer summers.