Thursday 29 September 2016

Health is about environment, so tackling chronic diseases starts with energy efficiency

Denis Naughten

Published 15/06/2016 | 02:30

Cold, damp housing exacerbates chronic conditions in older people such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. (Picture posed)
Cold, damp housing exacerbates chronic conditions in older people such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. (Picture posed)

Cancer is a disease that impacts on the lives of so many of us, either directly or indirectly. The desire to see cancer and its impacts tackled is something that strikes a chord in us all. I was greatly struck by the findings in the report of the National Cancer Registry, published June 9, that show clear links between older people living in deprived urban areas with higher rates of diagnosis of cancer and lower survival rates. The question is how best to act - and how to coordinate that action, particularly when, as highlighted by Dr Harry Comer of the National Cancer Registry, the issue is very complex.

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It was immediately clear to me that there are strong similarities between this situation and that facing many of our older people - in particular the impact on them of energy poverty, which my Department is tackling through the implementation of the National Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty.

This is why the central action in the strategy is the Warmth and Wellbeing pilot scheme. The scheme, part of the Healthy Ireland Initiative, is operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and the HSE public health team and is currently available to people over 55 in Dublin 12 and 24 who suffer chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are in receipt of the Fuel Allowance.

Once an application has been approved by the HSE team, a range of measures are undertaken by the SEAI, such as attic insulation, cavity wall insulation, dry lining and even external insulation, boiler replacement and the installation of heating controls. In addition, and this is critical for people with respiratory conditions, proper ventilation is also installed. Good ventilation is essential to ensure proper air quality in the renovated house and will not compromise warmth. The initial objective is to upgrade 400 homes this year, but this number may be reduced if the level of the works required is higher - the focus must be on quality of outcome rather than numbers.

This is part of a wider situation across the EU - where almost half of the EU buildings have boilers that were installed before 1992, with an efficiency rate of below 60pc, and 22pc of gas boilers, 34pc of direct electric heaters, 47pc of oil boilers and 58pc of coal boilers have passed their technical lifetime (ie, the length of time for which they are designed to operate).

The Warmth and Wellbeing pilot scheme is a new departure for both energy and health policy, and my Department has worked very closely with the Department of Health to develop it.

There is clear evidence that cold, damp housing exacerbates chronic conditions in older people such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and that energy poverty is linked to excess winter mortality and issues with mental health and wellbeing. There is strong evidence that combining our efforts will have positive results - by reducing energy bills for those on low incomes, and leading to fewer GP visits and hospital admissions. But most importantly, it will improve quality of life for participants.

My Department has set aside €20m for the Warmth and Wellbeing scheme for the period 2016 to 2018.

This is a challenge in the context of the ongoing fiscal constraints, but demonstrates the importance I attach to taking practical action to show how energy efficiency supports the achievement of better health outcomes and improved social inclusion.

This is why a research and evaluation project is being established as part of the pilot scheme, which will gather the data necessary to inform a decision on national roll-out.

While the first phase of the Warmth and Wellbeing pilot scheme is focused on people over 55 to help alleviate their chronic conditions, the importance of using the same energy efficiency measures to help prevent those conditions developing in the first place is also hugely important. In 2017 the aim is to increase the scope of the pilot scheme to children with asthma and who are at risk of energy poverty.

Energy efficiency is recognised around the world as the first, and most important, step to take in reducing energy consumption and tackling climate change. Schemes such as Warmth and Wellbeing can show us how tackling global climate change can also change individual lives for the better.

Health is as much about environment as anything else. As identified by the National Cancer Registry report, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions may also be a factor in the life expectancy of those with cancer. I believe our scheme will help to improve the health of those with these types of conditions and, over time, will improve the life expectancy of those with cancer.

Other illnesses may have higher incidence in areas of rural isolation and accessibility to services. However, I believe the planned roll-out under the National Broadband Plan will help address such problems.

To avail of the scheme contact the SEAI helpline on (Freephone) 1800 250 204 or contact your local health professional. Denis Naughten is the Minister for Communications and Climate Change

Irish Independent

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