Saturday, July 08, 2006

The cost of cold weather

Researchers at Otago University have quantified the cost in human life of cold weather - and found that it kills more people than car accidents. An average of 1600 more people die in winter than in summer, compared to an annual road toll of around 370. While some of these deaths are no doubt unavoidable, the piece cites another Otago researcher as saying that simple measures such as insulation have a significant effect on health. The upshot? Many of these deaths are avoidable, if we make sure our homes are warm and dry enough.

This makes me angry. According to the estimates of appropriation for Vote: Police, the government will spend $227 million this year on road safety, with the primary purpose of lowering the death toll on our roads. And it's been successful; the road toll has halved since 1989. How much will we spend next year on installing insulation in uninsulated homes? A paltry $2 million. It's like air pollution - which similarly kills more people in Auckland than die on the roads there - there are obvious, basic measures which could be taken, but which are not funded because the deaths are invisible. Car crashes get on the news and in the papers, but there are no photo opportunities when a 4 year old dies of pneumonia due to cold, or a pensioner dies of emphysema or lung cancer due to particulate pollution.

This is something the government should so something about. The most vulnerable in our society are dying needlessly and preventably. It should value the lives of those people at exactly the same level it values road-crash victims, and commit to funding preventative measures accordingly.


Meanwhile spending on insulation and imporoving the dirty and inefficient vehicle fleet would have other benefits.
We'd be reducing the demand for power and reducing our climate change emmissions too, and reducing the load on the public health system, and allowing people to have fewer days unable to work...

Even if we considered the benefit to the cold and fume breathing themselves wasn't enough cause to do so.

The Government should take action now. It's been dragging its feet on these issues consistently for far too long and pretending they dont exist.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/08/2006 04:55:00 PM


Consider myself, and my friend Viz.

I own a house, in Wellington, vintage 1908. I live there with my family. I'm working to have very good insulation where possible because it's highly economic: every dollar spent on insulating my ceiling pays itself back very quickly (exterior walls are more problematic). Owner-occupied dwellings tend to be well insulated.

V owns (part of) a house in Wellington of similar vintage (other shares held by his siblings and dad), which they rent out. I was shocked to discover that it's both uninsulated and that installing insulation is not on their to-do list. But for them it's just not economic. Renters don't look into the ceiling space to see what type of insulation is there, much less looking under the floor-boards. They can't charge enough extra rent to justify the cost.

The solutions are either (a) to require landlords to insulate or (b) for the govt to do it for them.

You're suggesting (b) but I think we should do (a). Set standards, and give landlords 3 years warning. Either they get their property up to scratch for insulation, or register as non-compliant. If they're non-compliant they must insert a standard set wording into any ad to let the place and into any tenancy agreement AND must pay a fine of 5% of rental income. That means that the "we'd have to rebuild the whole thing to comply" argument is accomodated: you don't _have_ to comply, but it'll cost you if you don't.

Posted by Icehawk : 7/08/2006 09:24:00 PM

If you are on a low income you can get your house insulated for $300.00

Posted by Swimming : 7/09/2006 12:05:00 AM

Icehawk: actually, I'd generally prefer a). The reason the government doesn't do it is because they clearly place a far lower value on a life lost due to winter or air pollution than they do on one lost due to a traffic accident.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/09/2006 12:35:00 AM

Dave: and if you're on a low income, you tend not to own your own home, which makes it a bit problematic. That, and the government doesn't exactly advertise the fact, does it?

We spend millions on road safety ads, telling people not to be dicks behind the wheel to save 350 lives a year. Shouldn't we be spending something on telling people how to ensure that their homes are warm and dry, so that their kids and grandparents won't die in winter (and in general they won't be a burden on the health system)?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/09/2006 12:39:00 AM

I agree with Ice Hawk about forcing landlords to insulate houses. I've lived in a few of those sorts of places over the years. Even if you don't die because of the cold and draughtiness of the living environment you end up having to pay so much more for power to try and keep the place bearable- which as a tenant in an uninsulated hell hole it is very likely you can ill afford. If that is not enough to motivate the government there is also all the working days that are probably lost through illness.

I also think it is absurd that double glazing isn't more the norm in New Zealand. That is something that is on my To Do list.

Posted by Amanda : 7/09/2006 09:05:00 AM

Totally agree with option A. I live in a Wellington house that's approximately 100 years old, and has absolutely no insulation, and is very draughty, meaning any heap just blows straight out of the house and it's very hard to get the moisture out.

Given the choice of saving money or being cold, we choose a higher power bill. Consequently we had a power bill of over $500 last month... although admittedly there are seven of us.

I have flatmates and freinds from Norway and Sweden, some of whom are architecture/building design students, and they are absolutely shocked at the lack of standards NZ has in this area.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/09/2006 01:20:00 PM

I/S, I am on a low income, We own our own home ( well, pay a mortgage,) and I got my home insulated on $300.00.

Low income home owners are more common than you think. I quite agree that the Govt should be promoting wormth in homes rather than Working for Families and stopping speedsters, but promoting
warmth in homes is under the political radar at the moment.

Posted by Swimming : 7/09/2006 03:54:00 PM

You are incorrect in saying these extra deaths are avoidable. Allmost all are of those with chronic illnesses whos remaining life expectancy is minimal. Colds and flu are spread more easily in winter and these are the killers in those with the chronic illnesses not the temperature per se.
Of course a very very small number will be otherwise healthy people who are actually outdoors without adequate clothing or have left a warm home and stood on a railway platform with a cold wind.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/09/2006 05:13:00 PM

Anon: it's not just old people who die in winter. As the article points out, "Mortality from respiratory disease in under-fives is twice as likely to happen in winter and is three times higher in July than in January".

Sure, disease rather than exposure is the actual killer. but the conditions which allow it to spread exist in part becuase of lax government policy which allows frankly substandard housing. And that is something we should try and fix.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/09/2006 05:56:00 PM

Actually, it's pretty easy to imagine that it would pay landlords to insulate.

If a house stands empty from 1-2 weeks a year because it's a freezing hole and the tenants move out once the lease expires, they lose 1-2 weeks of rent (up to $1000, I'd guess) every year. There may be a difference between common sense and motivation here (I've lived in houses like that myself).

Posted by Chris : 7/10/2006 02:08:00 PM

Dave, WFF is allowing me to heat my rented house better. Our budget isn't so tight any more and damn straight some of that money is going on heating. I'd love better insulation, but when we move our landlord (Middleton Grange) is demolishing our house to make more carparks, so I don't think it's on their to do list.

And anon, anyone with kids knows they get sicker in winter. And you know how poor people love to breed.

Posted by Ghet : 7/10/2006 03:16:00 PM