What is fuel poverty?

It's just a bit of cold, I'll be OK

People think that they can cope with being cold – and they can for a couple of days here and there over a given winter. But those in fuel poverty are living a different reality, of being somewhat to severely cold day and night, week after week, and month after month.  

A growing body of evidence clearly shows that the persistent cold associated with fuel poverty causes serious physical, psychological and sociological effects.

Children are particularly vulnerable. Reducing spending on food to pay fuel bills can impact children’s physical health and development as well as their emotional well-being. Damp, cold homes can have a negative effect on  children's immune systems, leaving them more open to common colds and the flu, and can also acerbate asthma, the most common chronic disease in childhood. The combination of many sick days away from school and the emotional stress of living in cold homes can compromise their performance at school.

A study carried out in 2006 suggests that children in bad housing conditions, including cold homes, are also more likely to contract more severe conditions such as meningitis, and to have respiratory problems and experience long-term ill health and disability. They may also show slow physical growth and have delayed cognitive development. These adverse outcomes reflect both the direct impact of the poor quality housing and the associated deprivation of other basic needs.

Lack of affordable warmth has also been linked to multiple mental health risks for young people and teenagers. Participants in one study showed four or more negative mental health symptoms and 28% were classified as having such risk, compared to only 4% of young people who had always lived in warm homes. A significant proportion of those living in cold homes felt unhappy in their families – 10% as opposed to just 2% of the group living in warm homes. Other studies point to the fact that young people living in cold homes try to find an escape, and also privacy, in other venues outside home, where they are more exposed to mental health risks.

Adults should not underestimate their own risks. The consequences of fuel poverty range from catching minor colds to causing or exacerbating serious illnesses such as respiratory conditions. Cold houses can also cause blood circulatory problems. Many people are aware that being outdoors in cold temperatures can alter blood pressure; recently, it has been proven that the seasonal variation in blood pressure is more strongly related to indoor temperature. 

At the extreme, a link is relatively well established between cold indoor temperatures and what is known as "excess winter deaths", often in elderly people. Newspapers reported that between December 2014 and March 2015, around 15 000 deaths in the United Kingdom could be associated with people living in homes that they could not able to keep adequately warm. 

Feeling cold all the time can also be a sign of other illnesses such as diabetes, an underactive thyroid gland or malnutrition. The bottom line is that chronic cold should not be brushed off as a minor inconvenience. Or simply bundled into another blanket and ignored.

For health worries, a person should see a doctor. But like an emergency medical team, diverse social agencies are standing by to help address the root causes of a cold home. People suffering ill health because of their home should feel equally comfortable in seeking help for their bodies and their homes.

The many ways in which fuel poverty affects health and well-being warrant much more investigation and are the focus of COLD@HOME reporting on Impacts of fuel poverty (coming 22 February).