The maximum temperature standards necessary to protect children and the elderly – climate researcher
Temperature caps are needed to protect vulnerable groups in rest homes and childcare centres, a climate change researcher is urging the government.
As temperatures rise and the elderly population in Aotearoa rises, more people will be at risk of heat stress.
Heat already kills more than a dozen New Zealanders a year, and it’s expected to get worse as temperatures rise.
The number of days that felt uncomfortably hot will rise as global warming leads to higher average temperatures and the frequency of extreme heat events, said Gregor Macara, a climate scientist at NIWA.
He’s already noticed changes in seasonal weather summaries, even in his hometown of chilly Invercargill.
Luke Harrington, a climate change lecturer at the University of Waikato, said the hottest days of the year had already risen by more than half a degree Celsius in many New Zealand cities.
A city like Auckland is expected to see a rise in the number of days hotter than 29°C or 30°C with more heat.
Research by Dr Harrington and Professor Dave Frame showed that cities with smaller temperature ranges such as Auckland and Hamilton may face higher risks. Because temperatures are more moderate, heat periods tend to be longer, with less overnight rest.
This doesn’t just mean more beach days.
Dr. Harrington cites international research showing that between one and eight percent of all warm-season deaths can be attributed to the weather.
He said that although New Zealand would not experience the extreme heat seen in places like Australia, research conducted in climates as diverse as Scandinavia and the tropics showed that adverse health effects occurred when temperatures rose above what is normal in that region.
What was considered dangerously hot depended on what people were used to and what their built environment was like, with plenty of cooling trees and reliable air conditioning, as well as behavioral adaptations like “not going out for a run in the middle of the weather.” Dr. Harrington said today.
JP Dermot Coffey, representing OraTiao: New Zealand’s Climate and Health Council, said heat deaths were often recorded due to heart disease or other causes. But epidemiologists can look at heat waves and infer how many people tipped over the edge who would have otherwise survived.
Heat stress increases cardiac stress and the risk of kidney failure, causing health effects long before the point at which a person is actually “cooked” to death. But he said the heat was often a less obvious killer than climate-exacerbated storms, such as the deadly floods in the Esk Valley in February.
Those most at risk are the elderly, young children, and those taking common medications such as heart medications or antidepressants. These groups may not be able to regulate body temperature well, for example by sweating, Dr. Coffey said. While people with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia may be more at risk.
Although the research is still ongoing, Dr Harrington said early indications were that Māori and Pacific Islanders were also more at risk.
But he said we can prepare.
In Paris, vulnerable residents can sign up for a door-knocking service to make sure they are okay when a heatwave hits. In Aotearoa, MetService has begun trialling heat alarms during the summer months.
Dr Harrington wants the Government to introduce maximum temperature standards for early childhood and aged care facilities, which currently have minimum temperatures but no legal maximum.
He said if New Zealand continued to build structures that didn’t keep vulnerable people cool enough, the country was setting itself up for greater health impacts in the future.
Dr Coffey said he “completely agrees” – and believes there should already be standards, especially in relation to aged care.
There was evidence that heat could be a problem even at current temperatures.
In 2017, Robert Love told Consumer NZ that his elderly mother Frieda was left in a break room that was at times freezing and sometimes as hot as 33 degrees, prompting an apology from Bupa. (The company also acknowledged other failures in its sponsorship.)
The Department of Health said it was not aware of the maximum temperature limit for aged care facilities, but they must have a window and adequate heating and ventilation.
The Department for Education said it is currently appointing a working group on early child care, which may consider introducing extreme temperatures.
Macara said a key determinant of heat stress is the extent to which countries can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the number of risky hot days in the future largely influenced by heating emissions levels.
A recent UN review found that the Paris Agreement had significantly reduced projected temperatures, but countries must do more.
(tags for translation) Radio New Zealand