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Changed climate will cook elderly people

By Kate Mannix - posted Wednesday, 27 September 2006

When 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 per cent 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.

Here 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-conditioning failed, or because the facility failed to plan a back-up?

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-profit organisations, for governments and for faith communities. And for faith communities such as the Catholic Church, which owns and operates about 13 per cent of facilities in Australia’s health care sector, 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 health care.

"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.

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First published in Eureka Street on September 5, 2006.

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About the Author

Kate Mannix is the founding editor of On Line Catholics, which she edited between 2003 and 2005. Before that she was a senior researcher at ABC Television. She has edited the Catholic Church's e-zines Ozspirit, and various publications for schools.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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