More deaths as cold creeps into Australian homes

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday September 28, 2021

Housing advocates warn that the poor thermal performance of homes in South Australia is associated with more than 600 deaths each year.
Housing advocates warn that the poor thermal performance of homes in South Australia is associated with more than 600 deaths each year. (Budimir Jevtic/Adobe)

Housing advocates have warned that the poor thermal performance of homes in South Australia is associated with more than 600 deaths each year.

The sick season: cold weather and mortality in South Australia found that more than 150 excess deaths occurred for each cold month compared with the rest of the year. 

The report was commissioned by tenant advocacy organisation Better Renting and identified that as temperatures went down during the SA winter, death rates went up

Better Renting executive director Joel Dignam said that despite the fact that Australia experienced milder winters compared to other places in the world, the way that the homes in Australia are built make them less resilient when the temperature drops. What this showed, he said, was that warmer countries experienced higher rates of deaths (mainly due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease in older people) correlated to cold weather.

“A cold home doesn’t just mean higher power bills, it means living every day with a threat to your health,” Dignam said.

“A home without insulation or with the wind blowing through can be more deadly than a rickety staircase or a broken circuit breaker.”

Dignam called on the state government to implement minimum energy efficiency standards for rental housing as a matter of urgency.

“People who rent are especially vulnerable because their homes are less energy-efficient and because they can’t make changes themselves.

“The SA government needs to ensure that property investors are required to make their properties healthy and safe to live in,” he said.

Dr Lyrian Daniel from Adelaide University’s Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning has undertaken thermal monitoring of local homes since 2017 to collect data about the living conditions within SA homes in winter. Her research found that few of the houses within a sample group recorded an average daily temperature above 18 degrees.

“[This] is the minimum safe temperature for homes recommended by the World Health Organization, during the cold months,” Daniel explained. 

“For many of us, problems of cold housing have been hidden. We don’t think of Australia as having particularly cold winters and are fairly used to putting another jumper on to cope.

Dr Daniel added that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Australians have been spending more time in their homes and consequently have a better understanding of how poorly insulated our homes are.

Mark Henley from SA not-for-profit Uniting Communities, which also provides financial counselling, said that his organisation had witnessed first-hand how cold weather impacted vulnerable people. The high cost of heating Australia’s poorly insulated homes during the winter risked leaving many households struggling to afford other essentials, like food, he said. 

“In our work we see many rental properties that have drafts through broken windows, ill-fitting doors, and gaps between walls and ceilings,” Henley said.

“Sadly, many renters are reluctant to approach their landlord for fear of eviction or a rent increase.”

It was not uncommon for those people seeking financial counselling advice from Uniting Communities to go without medication or fresh food in order to pay rent and electricity bills, Henley said.

“Minimum energy efficiency standards for rental housing would mean that renters don’t have to choose between heating and eating.

“We all benefit when people in our community can afford to have a healthy home,” he said.


‘Die of cold or die of stress?’: Social housing is frequently colder than global health guidelines

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