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Changed climate will cook the elderly

Kate Mannix |  04 September 2006

Too damn hotWhen the great heatwave of 2003 struck Paris, it left 14,802 people dead. 30,000 people died throughout the rest of Europe. It was, according to Britain's chief scientific adviser Sir David King, the worst natural disaster on record.

Sixty percent of those deaths occurred in nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals.

In 2003, the French hospital authorities were caught out by climate change, and their failure to plan, let alone adapt to the long predicted changed weather conditions. The majority of deaths in Europe in 2003 were of people over 65—those who are most at risk of heat extremes.

But even if the French had planned for an increased level of air conditioning in their aged care facilities—which they did not—would it have been enough? High demand for air conditioning during extreme heat causes power outages. A frail, elderly person will die in about three days without air conditioning. But it takes at least a week for them to adapt when the air conditioning fails, according to the NSW Department of Health.

Changed climate will cook the elderlyHere in Australia, with our much hotter climate—how many will die in hospitals and nursing homes as the temperature rises? How many more people in aged care facilities will die because the air con failed, or because the facility failed to plan a backup?

And, since heatwaves are now as predictable as the first magpies in spring—how long will it be before someone—or their estate—sues?

There has been almost no public discussion of the ramifications of climate change on the health care sector in Australia. While the CSIRO has projections on the likely effects of climate change in Australia, there has been little work on what that will actually mean for human health outcomes in specific regions. But NSW Health has recently won funding from the NSW Greenhouse Office to do just that.

"There is a lack of specifically Australian information," says Glenis Lloyd, leader of the NSW project. "Much of the existing information is about global issues—and while death from extremes of cold might be an issue in the northern hemisphere, it really isn't of much interest to hospital facilities in Mildura," she says.

Climate naysayers take comfort in the difficulty of absolute predictions by scientists. But the effects of climate change are complex; the 'heat', to coin a phrase, will not be distributed evenly. However, the Australian Greenhouse Office asserts that on average, there will be an increase in annual national average temperatures of between 0.4 and 2.0 degrees celsius by 2030, and of between 1.0 and 6.0 degrees celsius by 2070; more heatwaves and fewer frosts. There will be an increase in 'high bushfire propensity days'.

Climate change isn't just an environmental problem. It is very much a problem for business, for non-profits, for governments, and for faith communities. And for faith communities such as the Catholic Church, which owns and operates some 13% of facilities in Autralia's health care Changed climate will cook the elderlysector, the challenges of our excessive consumption are considerable.

Hospitals, aged care facilities and other health-related industries need to consider their reliance on petroleum products. US public health expert Dr Dan Bednarz is a consultant working on how peak oil will affect healthcare.

"Petroleum renders lubricants, gels, plastic gloves, gowns, packaging, various pharmaceuticals and medicines, toothbrushes, dining utensils, a wide variety of tools and equipment to a vast list of the artifacts of modern healthcare," he writes in the e-zine Culture Change.

"Heating, cooling and other energy costs in medical facilities have increased about four-fold since the year 2000, while the food served in hospitals becomes more and more expensive as oil and natural gas prices continue to climb," says Dr Bednarz.

Catholic facilities should adapt their services to mitigate the worst of climate change because it is the right thing to do, not because it is good business. But if we do not, we just may well go out of business: a major insurance industry report released in Boston last week warned that climate change ultimately threatens to bankrupt even the largest insurers, noting catastrophic losses in 2004-5 of $US75 billion.

Changed climate will cook the elderlyWorldwide, heatwaves claim thousands of lives, killing more people each year than floods, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. If the Australian Greenhouse Office is right, an increase of 2°C by 2030 means that a city like Canberra could have an average temperature in the summer of almost 30°C. Canberra's summer high now—42.2°C—may reach 44.2°C.

When the human body gets to 42°C, it starts to cook. The heat causes the proteins in each cell to change irreversibly, like an egg white as it boils. Even before that, the brain shuts down because of a lack of blood coming from the overworked, overheated heart. Muscles stop working, the stomach cramps and the mind becomes delirious. Death is inevitable.

And it is the most vulnerable—the old, the young, the sick and the poor—who will go first. Climate change will indeed test the resolve of Catholic and other aged care systems, to pursue a 'preferential option for the poor'.


Kate Mannix

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Submitted comments

What a disturbing image - blood cells congealing in the heat. A very well-written article, great work.

Nina Lowe 07 September 2006

The line "how long will it be before someone,or their estate,sues" sickens me and is typical of the mindset of journalists and the public at large.Our overgoverned society will 'kill'us off way before climate change!

Russell Walsh 08 September 2006

Thank God someone is daring to be honest about all of this. I become so frustrated with people who are only concerned about THEIR present situation. Signs being presented to us from the environment are warning alerts. We can make changes NOW. It will cost us for sure. Better it costs us now in lesser ways than in multitudinous ways in the future. We MUST relate our present actions having effect in the future!!!

Katherine Tyrrell 08 September 2006

The current crop of publicly-funded nursing homes are, generally, cheaply ("cheerfully") constructed. This is because bureaucrats will generally select the cheapest tender to design and build the home/hospital; there is an argument that these buildings do not require a long design life because, sooner or later, they will be persistently infected with drug-resistant 'superbugs', necessitating their demolition.
Funding authoroties are therefore not overly upset when the buildings are condemned as a result of termite infestation; better the termites get to the building before MRSA (or the recently-emerged drug-resistant TB strain that is presently ravaging the ranks of immuno-compromised people in Africa).
The upshot is, with the short lifetime of nursing homes, the opportunity is ever-present to include architecturally-designed passive cooling features; the bureaucrats will need authority from their political masters to choose among teneders on bases other than minimising construction expenditiure.

David Arthur 28 September 2006

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