Renters at risk in the heat

Australia’s renters are at much greater risk of negative mental and physical health impact from extreme heat than home owners, a new analysis has found

Advocacy organisation Better Renting is calling for legislators to require improvements to rental housing stock which could reduce this impact, following the release of its Home Baked: Housing, heat and health report.

The report’s release comes on the tail of weeks of heatwave conditions across parts of the country this summer.

“Heatwaves are Australia’s deadliest natural hazard, and are being made worse every year by climate change,” said Joel Dignam, executive director of Better Renting.

“Renters stuck in unsafe homes around the country are on the frontline of this worsening crisis.

“Some of the most vulnerable members of our society rent homes that are substandard and nearly impossible to keep cool in the summer at an affordable cost. 

“But often, they are too powerless or afraid of eviction to ask their landlords for measures like better insulation, ceiling fans, or other improvements.

“These renters are at greater risk of heart, lung, and kidney ailments due to extreme heat, as well as mental health challenges.”

The paper, which is “principally informed by a literature review of academic papers on heatwaves and health,” also includes qualitative input from people who rent about their experiences renting housing in summer.

“In Australia, the death toll from extreme heat events is greater than from all other natural hazards (such as floods or bushfires) combined,” the report states.

“Indeed, more people died from the heatwave that preceded Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 than died from the bushfires themselves. These deaths are linked to heat stroke and dehydration.

“In addition, heat stress can worsen chronic conditions and affect existing mental disorders.

“Cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal conditions are especially affected; in warmer parts of Australia, higher temperatures predict increased rates of suicide.

“Heat can also harm health by affecting moods and spurring dangerous behaviour such as overdrinking or violence.”

The report cites data which show that pre-existing mental illness has been found to more than triple the risk of death from heatwave. Meanwhile, many people with mental illness use psychotropic drugs which a meta-analysis showed significantly increases the risk of death during a heatwave.

The report warns that these trends are likely to become worse in the future due to climate change as well as the ageing population, which will generally be less resilient to heat.

The very young are also at risk when it comes to very hot weather, the report notes.

Mr Dignam called on the government to require housing stock to be more energy efficient, to improve access to public spaces such as air-conditioned libraries, and to improve access to solar energy.

The report can be accessed here.

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