Australians should develop heatwave plans to protect themselves against health risks – just as they prepare for bushfires, health and disaster experts say.
Heatwaves have already begun to sweep through southern Australia this spring, and more are predicted this coming summer, with the Bureau of Meteorology formally declaring an El Niño on Tuesday.
The Australian Red Cross this week warned that 58% of Australians expect to be affected by heatwaves in the coming 12 months, more than five years ago when only a quarter expected to be affected. However, new independent research conducted on the organisation’s behalf shows only 10% of Australians are taking steps to actively get ready.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) on Wednesday said this week’s heatwaves were an urgent reminder for the government to release, implement and fund its national health and climate strategy as soon as possible.
Dr Kate Wylie, a general practitioner and executive director with Doctors for the Environment Australia, said more should be done on both an individual level, as well as by local and state governments, to prepare ahead for the health impacts of heatwaves.
Wylie said there needed to be greater recognition of heatwaves as a serious health threat. Heatstroke and exhaustion are a risk, but heatwaves can also exacerbate chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, MS and asthma. Australians over the age of 65, pregnant people, small children and homeless people are also at greater risk.
“If we can start to approach heatwaves in the same way we approach fire and recognise it as a coming problem and act to protect ourselves, that’s really sensible.”
How much risk do we face?
Prof Ollie Jay, the director of the heat and health incubator at the University of Sydney, said people need to first understand the different factors contributing to the risk they’re facing.
Jay said people needed to be aware that the temperature reported by the BoM and other meteorological services is measured in the shade. The temperature in direct sunlight can be 8-10C warmer in spring – and up to 17C warmer at the height of summer.
Wind and humidity are two further environmental factors which should be considered, along with the personal factors of what a person is wearing and what actions they are doing.
What can we do?
Individuals should tailor the steps they take to environmental factors, as well as their own vulnerabilities, such as their age and medical conditions.
The University of Sydney has partnered with NSW Health to develop a “Heat Watch” app which will integrate external and personal factors to provide targeted advice, Jay said.
The pilot app will be available for anyone who wishes to download it in October.
For those who can stay indoors, Jay advised using air conditioning but acknowledged the cost was prohibitive for many during a cost-of-living crisis. Air circulation should be the priority – either integrating air circulation through a pedestal or ceiling fan, or opening windows – but only if the temperature was cooler outside than inside, Jay said.
Jay said when socioeconomic disadvantage coincided with medical vulnerability, it created a “perfect storm of vulnerability to the heat”.
Wylie said government should provide more cool refuges for vulnerable people.
State health departments recommend that people can also seek out air-conditioned public buildings, such as museums and art galleries, libraries and shopping centres. However, Wylie said it was important for governments to provide more cool refuges for people to go, especially because many public spaces are closed at night when temperatures can remain elevated due to the urban heat island effect.
Australians with friends or family who were especially vulnerable and living in a house without effective heat cooling measures should offer to have them to stay, Wylie said.
When should we seek help?
Wylie said Australians should be conscious if they were starting to “feel a bit off”, recognising they were being affected by the heat. “Act to pull yourself down, sit in the shade, go back inside, go into a building with an air conditioner, drink a glass of water.”
“Have a low threshold for calling the help. Call an ambulance if you need to, because heatstroke is a medical emergency – you can die within minutes,” Wylie said.
Blackouts also frequently occured during heatwaves, Wylie said, so a plan should include methods for keeping cool using water, such as getting in the bath, putting your feet in a bucket of water or pressing a wet piece of material on the back of your head.
What are councils doing?
The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), which represents local government areas which have some of the most significant risk profiles in Australia, are one example of councils working with state and federal governments, industry and community sectors to develop a coordinated plan for managing heat risk at the level of urban design.
Charles Casuscelli, the CEO of the organisation, said: “Western Sydney councils see heatwaves as an important public health issue.
“WSROC have been working to ensure heat is managed through urban planning and development via projects such as our Cool Suburbs tool. We have also been working to ensure that communities are prepared for heat through our Heat Smart Western Sydney program,” he said.