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We explore the health impacts of fossil fuels and how breaking free from them could radically improve our health.
We know that Ireland’s dependence on fossil fuels is locking us into energy insecurity and high energy costs. But our health and wellbeing is also being impacted by burning fossil fuels in our homes, putting us at greater risk of respiratory illness, mental ill-health, and heart problems.
Here are 10 reasons why the Government needs to urgently prioritise retrofits for low-income households and at risk communities.
Living in poor quality, draughty homes has serious impacts on our physical health. Low housing standards and its unequal distribution,y can be linked to other inequalities- women, children and the elderly are most adversely affected by poor health from cold, leaky homes. Ireland also has one of the highest rates of excess winter deaths in the EU at over 2,800 deaths annually, many of which can be attributed to fuel poverty and cold housing. Poor quality housing has significant public health repercussions, costing €194 billion across the EU every year.
Children living in cold homes are over twice as likely to suffer from respiratory problems than those living in warm homes. In Ireland, household energy poverty is associated with a lower likelihood of children being healthy overall. It has also been shown that children are hospitalised more often in cold homes/in households at risk of energy poverty. Children living in homes that undergo energy upgrades are reported to miss 15% less days of school.
Burning of solid fuels like coal, peat, and wood in our homes remains one of the primary threats to good air quality in Ireland. Currently 11% of Irish homes rely primarily on solid fuels for home heating. Air pollution increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases such as asthma. It is estimated that air pollution causes 1,300 premature deaths per year in Ireland. Air pollution levels in Ireland in 2021 failed to meet the WHOs Air Quality guidelines for health. It’s worth noting however that swapping one polluting fuel source for another slightly less polluting one is not a solution for our climate or our health, for example gas emissions in many US states now lead to more deaths than coal burning.
Living in damp, cold housing has negative effects on our mental health. Energy poverty is strongly associated with poor mental health, partially because of the financial stress associated with high energy bills and debt. Studies show that spending a high proportion of income on home heating is associated with reduced emotional wellbeing, social isolation, financial stress, malnutrition and difficulties staying warm. A 2022 study on Irish households with children has shown that energy poverty increases the likelihood of depression in parents.
Gas cookers may be exposing over 100 million people in Europe to dangerous levels of indoor air pollution and costs the EU an estimated €3.5 billion annually in healthcare costs, lost earnings and productivity, and disability adjusted life years. In Australia, the impact of gas cooking on childhood asthma has been found to be comparable to that of second-hand smoke. It has been noted that if gas cookers were removed overnight, 12% of paediatric asthma cases in the EU (700,000 children) could be avoided.
There are three root causes of energy poverty - inefficient buildings, high energy costs, and low incomes. Retrofitting can help alleviate the symptoms of inequality caused by poor-quality housing, and retrofitting low-income households has been shown to be the most effective measure to reduce energy poverty.
If all homes across the EU were switched to electric heat pumps it would result in 10 times less Nitrous Oxide being released, which currently causes 40,400 premature deaths in the EU annually. When low-income households are retrofitted,improvements in health account for up to 75% of the economic benefits. In New Zealand and Wales, deep retrofitting and the replacement of inefficient heaters and devices have been shown to result in improvements to both home warmth and children’s health.
Social isolation among older people is exacerbated by living in a cold home as they are less likely to leave the house or to invite friends over. However research has shown that when combined with strong community engagement, home energy upgrades can decrease social isolation, alongside reducing energy bills and improving thermal comfort.
Energy efficiency can act as an economic boost. Research indicates that a well-resourced and successful nationwide retrofit plan to bring all homes up to a B rating could generate €35 billion worth of work between 2021-2030. As retrofitting work will be necessary across every corner of Ireland, these jobs would be spread across the country and not centralised in major towns and cities.
Retrofitting and installing renewable heating systems reduces household demand for dirty polluting oil and gas. This would lead to both a reduction in oil and gas imports and less fossil fuels being extracted for home heating means less impacts on the climate and the environment. If all Irish homes were retrofitted to a B-rating, 12.736 million tonnes of CO2 could potentially be saved. Improving the quality of Irish housing is therefore now a matter of urgency - for our health, finances, and environment.
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