As hospitalisations and deaths related to climate change rise, a University of Wollongong expert says people need to work out how they will make changes to their homes and behaviour to reduce health risks in extreme weather.
A new report released on November 2 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows the number of hospital admissions for injuries associated with extreme weather - such as heatwaves, bushfires and storms are rising.
It shows that extreme heat was responsible for the most weather-related injuries and, heat and bushfire-related injuries increased during El Nino years, which we are experiencing in 2023.
Over the 10 years analysed, extreme heat accounted for 7104 injury hospitalisations and 293 deaths.
This week, NSW Health warned of the health risks that come with hot days, which are expected to be frequent this summer.
"Heatwaves are predicted in the weeks ahead, and can take a health toll on anyone," the department said.
"Babies, young children, people over 65 and those with existing health problems are most at risk."
In the warming climate, UOW sustainable housing expert Dr Dan Daly, who has worked on the Illawarra Flame House, says there are a number of "health interventions" people can make in their homes to protect them.
"In the summer, what happens is you have a short four or five-day period where it's really hot, and it's hot overnight and that puts a lot of stress on the body and so you have increased mortality immediately after that," Dr Daly said.
"So you have a short-term, severe impact - so you don't necessarily need to think about increasing the energy efficiency of your whole house.
"What you need to think about is how am I going to get through these relatively short, relatively intense heat wave periods."
One answer to this is to create a cool refuge - a small space where you can spend time, and ideally sleep, while the heatwave is occurring.
"Essentially what we're talking about is putting a small air-conditioning system in a smallish room in your house," Dr Daly said.
"So for those extreme periods, you have somewhere that you can go - you might not want to live your whole life in that one small room but it's a safety thing, where if it is an extreme heat wave, and you're feeling a bit of heat stress, you can go into that room and cool down."
He said people should choose the coolest room in their house, ideally a bedroom, and could also hang good curtains to keep heat out and cool air in, and seal off gaps to make the room energy efficient.
"The idea is that you're cooling a smaller volume of air, which is fundamentally going to make that mean that you use a lot less energy and you can spend a lot less up front and on electricity to keep cool."
He said people should think about cool refuges as a short term health intervention, that allowed them to stay safe while not adding to the problem of climate change.
"It's looking at this as something that is not ideal, or something that you really want to be doing," he said.
"We need to start thinking about climate adaptation - accepting that we are going to have these heatwaves, we want have things that let us cope with these extreme events without making the problem worse by just installing massive air conditioning systems that are going to use an awful lot of energy."
He said people should also look as passive energy solutions, like windowing shadings and curtains, and get into the practice of opening all their windows to let cool air in at night and then closing them each morning.
Dr Daly said there were also increasing moves to create cool refuges in the community, and said many planners and councils were making moves towards creating these.
"A traditional one of those might be a libraries- because they have big air conditioning systems, they're free and people can stay there as long as they want," Dr Daly said.
"So if you're in a really uncomfortable house and the heatwave is coming up, you might make a plan to go to the library for a lot of that time to give your body a break from the heat.
"Shopping centres are another one - although you can hang out at the shopping center, but typically you're there to spend money."
AIHW spokesperson Dr Heather Swanston said the evidence showed there had been an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, bushfires, extreme cold, rain and storm-related events.
"We are seeing this reflected in hospitalisations and deaths," she said.
"In the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, there were 9,119 hospitalisations for injury in Australia directly attributable to extreme weather.
"With the exception of Tasmania, exposure to excessive natural heat was the most common cause leading to injury hospitalisation for all states and territories."
From 2019 to 2022, there were 2,143 hospital admissions related to extreme heat, with 348 from NSW.
The data doesn't include injuries where patients were treated in hospital emergency departments and didn't require admission to the hospital.
The AIHW said the data provided a starting point for counting extreme weather-related injuries.
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