Cold homes will damage children’s lungs and brain development and lead to deaths as part of a “significant humanitarian crisis” this winter, health experts have warned.
Unless the next prime minister curbs soaring fuel bills, children face a wave of respiratory illness with long-term consequences, according to a review by Sir Michael Marmot, the director of University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, and Prof Ian Sinha, a respiratory consultant at Liverpool’s Alder Hey children’s hospital.
Sinha said he had “no doubt” that cold homes would cost children’s lives this winter, although they could not predict how many, with damage done to young lungs leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema and bronchitis for others in adulthood.
It comes as the Resolution Foundation thinktank predicts Britain is facing the deepest living standards squeeze in a century, with a typical household losing £3,000 in real-terms income over two years, inflation hitting 15% for the poorest households, and the cost of living crisis lasting into 2024.
It forecasts 3 million more people will be living in absolute poverty, and relative child poverty will hit its highest level since the peaks of the 1990s, in a “frankly terrifying” outlook for living standards.
Huge numbers of cash-strapped households are preparing to turn heating systems down or off when the energy price cap increases to £3,549 from 1 October, and the president of the British Paediatric Respiratory Society, also told the Guardian that child deaths were likely.
“There will be excess deaths among some children where families are forced into not being able to heat their homes,” said Dr Simon Langton-Hewer. “It will be dangerous, I’m afraid.”
In the UK, 45 million people are forecast to face fuel poverty by January 2023, and Marmot and Sinha said “millions of children’s development will be blighted” with lung damage, “toxic stress” that will affect brain development, and deepening educational inequalities as children struggle to keep up with school work in freezing homes. Across all age groups, the cold crisis will cost thousands of lives, they warned.
“It’s simply insupportable in Britain in the 21st century to have so many people that are fuel insecure,” said Marmot, one of the world’s leading experts on public health inequalities. “The government needs to act, and act right now. It’s clear we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands losing their lives and millions of children’s development blighted, leading to inequalities that will last a lifetime.”
Sinha warned worried parents against wrapping up infants in multiple layers as this can restrict breathing, and said sleeping in the same bed to share bodily warmth – without following the precautions advised by the Lullaby Trust and the NHS – could increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (Sids). He recommended using winter-weight babygrows, and contacting landlords and health professionals for help if parents are concerned.
Families already facing fuel poverty told the Guardian how children as young as four have been hospitalised with respiratory illness because of cold and damp. One mother said a doctor found her eight-year-old son’s chronic lung congestion was depleting his brain’s oxygen supply.
“Mould climbing the walls and wrecking cots, and children being hospitalised because of poor housing may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but this is reality for a worrying number of families,” said Polly Neate, the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.
Damp contributes to up to 15% of new cases of childhood asthma in Europe and for children with asthma, lung function worsens with every degree drop in indoor temperature below 9C, the World Health Organization has found.
Wholesale gas prices surged from £1.04 per therm in November to £2.71 in June as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the reopening of the global economy after Covid put pressure on costs. But Marmot also blamed a slowdown in the rate of installation of wall and roof insulation in Britain’s often aged housing stock over the last 15 years.
Clare Bambra, a professor of public health at Newcastle University, said the cost of living crisis was on course to become a public health crisis “potentially surpassing the pandemic”. She said: “The impacts of rising fuel poverty will be particularly felt in the north – as we have an older population and higher rates of deprivation.”
Marmot said: “If we are constantly worrying about making ends meet, it puts a strain on our bodies, resulting in increased stress, with effects on the heart and blood vessels and a disordered immune system. This type of living environment will mean thousands of people will die earlier than they should, and, in addition to lung damage in children, the toxic stress can permanently affect their brain development.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are providing £37bn of direct support to reach people’s pockets in the weeks and months ahead, targeted at those who need it most. This includes 8 million of the most vulnerable households receiving the second part of £650 this autumn, another £300 going to pensioners in November, £150 for the disabled and £400 for all energy bill payers.
“As the public would rightly expect, we are working closely with the NHS to ensure we are ready for extra pressures this winter, including providing an extra £79m last year to significantly expand our mental health services, enabling more children and young people to get help.”
• This article was amended on 1 and 2 September 2022. An earlier version said wholesale gas prices surged from £104 per therm in November to £271 in June; this should have been £1.04 to £2.71. Also, a reference to the potential risks of co-sleeping with young children has been changed to clarify that it is considered safe so long as official advice is followed; the term “cot death” was changed to Sids; and the main image was changed in line with official guidance on children’s use of inhalers/nebulisers.