Cold houses will damage children’s lungs and brain development and lead to deaths in a “significant humanitarian crisis” this winter, health experts have warned.
Unless the next prime minister curbs soaring fuel bills, children are facing a wave of respiratory illnesses with long-term consequences, according to a review by Sir Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity of UCL, and Professor Ian Sinha, respiratory consultant at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.
Sinha said he had ‘no doubt’ cold houses would cost children their lives this winter, although they could not predict how much, with damage to young lungs leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD ), emphysema and bronchitis for others in adulthood.
It comes as the Resolution Foundation think tank predicts Britain is facing the biggest squeeze in living standards for a century, with the typical household losing £3,000 in real income over two years as inflation hits 15% for the poorest households and the cost of living crisis that will last until 2024.
It predicts that 3 million more people will live in absolute poverty, and relative child poverty will reach its highest level since the peaks of the 1990s, in a “frankly terrifying” prospect of living standards.
A large number of cash-strapped households are preparing to switch off or turn off heating systems when the energy price cap drops to £3,549 from October 1, and the president of the British Pediatric Respiratory Society also told the Guardian that child deaths were likely.
“There will be an excess of deaths in some children where families are forced to not be able to heat their homes,” said Dr Simon Langton-Hewer. “It will be dangerous, I’m afraid.”
In the UK, 45 million people are provide to address energy poverty by January 2023, and Marmot and Sinha said “the development of millions of children will be marred” by lung damage, “toxic stress” that will affect brain development and worsening educational inequalities as children struggle to keep up with schoolwork in freezing homes. Across all age groups, the cold snap will cost thousands of lives, they warned.
“It’s just unbearable in Britain in the 21st century to have so many energy insecure people,” said Marmot, one of the world’s leading experts on public health inequalities. “The government must act, and act now. It is clear that we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands of deaths and the development of millions of compromised children, resulting in inequalities that will last a lifetime.
Sinha warned worried parents against wrapping infants in multiple layers as it can restrict breathing, and said sleeping in the same bed to share body heat could increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. He recommended using winter carriers and contacting owners and medical professionals for help if parents are concerned.
Families already dealing with fuel poverty have told the Guardian how children as young as four have been hospitalized with a respiratory illness due to cold and damp conditions. A mother has said a doctor discovered that her eight-year-old son’s chronic lung congestion was depleting his brain’s oxygen supply.
“Mildew is crawling up walls and destroying cots, and children hospitalized due to poor housing can seem like nightmares, but that’s the reality for a disturbing number of families,” said Polly Neate, managing director of the housing charity Shelter.
Humidity contributes to up to 15% of new cases of childhood asthma in Europe and for children with asthma, lung function deteriorates with every degree the indoor temperature drops below 9C, found the World Health Organization.
Wholesale gas prices have jumped from £104 per therm in November to £271 in June as Russia invaded Ukraine and reopened 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 aging building stock over the past 15 years.
Clare Bambra, professor of public health at Newcastle University, said the cost of living crisis was on its way to becoming a public health crisis “potentially surpassing the pandemic”. She said: “The impacts of rising energy poverty will be particularly felt in the north – as we have an older population and higher rates of deprivation.”
Marmot said: “If we constantly worry about making ends meet, it puts a strain on our bodies, leading to increased stress, with effects on the heart and blood vessels and a disordered immune system. This type of living environment means that thousands of people will die earlier than they should and, in addition to lung damage in children, toxic stress can permanently affect their brain development.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.