31 Jul

Extreme weather and our health

Posted By polity_admin_user

It is mid-summer 2013 and the UK is experiencing a heat wave for the first time in a long time!  This brings to the fore a number of issues related to health.  On a personal level perhaps the heat is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it!?  Physically this type of heat, if you are not used to it, can make you feel hot and bothered, tired and uncomfortable.  Mentally and emotionally it can leave you feeling stressed, unable to concentrate and irritable.  A lot depends of course, on whether you are on holiday or at work!  There is a lot of attention in the media at the moment about the weather and the detrimental health effects.  As I write this the BBC has put out a level 3 weather warning about the heat.  
In Chapter 10 of Contemporary Health Studies: An Introduction we focus on the physical environment and its impact on our health.  The weather is not specifically considered in the chapter but it undoubtedly has an impact – in many different ways.  One of the ways in which we do consider the weather in the book is through the issue of climate change.  Climate change is referred in many places throughout the book.  Whilst there are still those that argue that we are not experiencing any effects of climate change others would argue that ‘extremes’ of weather, such as the heat wave we are currently experiencing, are evidence of this.  See this clip from summer of 2011 as an example 
Australia is a country used to experiencing extreme heat.  There are many ways in which people living in Australia have adapted to cope with the heat.  One of the most successful  health promotion interventions in Australia around protecting yourself in the sun was called the Slip, Slap, Slop campaign – ‘Slip on a shirt, Slap on a hat, Slop on some sun cream’. 
Although the campaign was carried out in the 1980’s the message has stuck and there has been a reduction in the incidences of skin cancer in the past two decades. 
Any ‘extreme’ of weather, be it cold, hot or excessive rainfall, exacerbates existing health and social inequalities.  A report published in late 2011 ‘Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty’ http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/projects/the-health-impacts-of-cold-homes-and-fuel-poverty clearly demonstrated the link between being cold or living in cold homes and detriments to health.  In terms of health specifically, the report concluded that almost three times more people die during the colder months in the coldest quarter of housing than in the warmest quarter; that mental health is negatively affected by fuel poverty and cold housing for any age group and that cold housing increases the level of minor illnesses such as colds and flu and exacerbates existing conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism.  In terms of direct impacts cold housing negatively affects children’s educational attainment, emotional well-being and resilience; fuel poverty negatively affects dietary opportunities and choices; and cold housing negatively affects dexterity and increases the risk of accidents and injuries in the home.
Ruth Cross 
26th July 2013