Heat pumps can improve our health and reduce energy poverty, two problems that differentially impact vulnerable populations including seniors, infants, and young children.
This blog builds on an op-ed published by the Hamilton Spectator, which I co-authored with Dr. Heather McDiarmid. To learn why new homes should require electric heat pumps, not costly and polluting fossil fuel systems, click on this link, Hamilton Spectator op-ed before reading the remainder of this blog.
Using all-electric heat pumps, not natural gas, to heat space and water in new housing will reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are largely responsible for planetary warming and climate change. The World Health Organization declared climate change to be the “single biggest health threat facing humanity.” The impacts of climate change on human health range from drought and food insecurity, to flooding and habitat changes, which have dramatically increased the incidence of Lyme disease in Ontario. In Canada, the recent, unprecedented increases in the frequency and intensity of wildfires and heat waves have made us more aware that climate change is a risk to our health.
The impacts of climate change have been described as a “threat multiplier”. That is, the health risks of vulnerable groups such as older individuals, infants and children, and racialized groups will be multiplied by the effects of climate change.
In addition to reducing greenhouse gases, electric heat pumps produce no pollution when used in homes, unlike gas-fired furnaces, which vent health harming pollutants outdoors. Air pollution is a serious, but underappreciated problem. It is estimated to result in 15,300 deaths in Canada per year. To put this number into context, fewer than 2,000 people die from motor vehicle accidents and about 14,000 individuals die from a stroke each year in Canada.
Air pollution has a wide range of impacts on human health. Air pollution increases the risk of adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease (e.g., hypertension, ischemic heart disease, heart failure), respiratory disease (e.g., asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer), and cognitive decline (e.g., dementia, Parkinson’s disease). Air pollution also has adverse effects on mental health (e.g., anxiety, depression).
Heat Pumps, Energy Poverty, and Health
A second advantage of heat pumps is that they can reduce energy poverty, estimated to be experienced by over 1 million Ontarians. Some groups such as older individuals and single mothers are more likely to experience energy poverty. Energy poverty refers to a situation in which a person cannot access or afford adequate levels of energy at home to meet their needs. Although associated with poverty, individuals may not be poor, but still may not be able to access or afford adequate levels of energy to heat their homes in the winter and cool them in the summer. Results from a recent study showed that individuals with high energy expenditures relative to their income and people, who were dissatisfied with their ability to be comfortable in the winter and summer, reported having worse general and mental health, compared to people not experiencing energy poverty.
As pointed out in our Hamilton Spectator op-ed, reports released by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and by the Canadian Climate Institute have shown that heat pumps will save Ontario homeowners money. New homes that run on heat pumps will therefore cost less to operate and that means greater housing affordability and a reduction in energy poverty.
In addition, heat pumps provide both heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. This is a major health benefit and may further reduce energy poverty. As we have seen in recent years, extreme heat is deadly for vulnerable populations, even in Canada.
At a time when all levels of government in Canada seek to build new homes to address the housing crisis, they have an opportunity to also reduce emissions, improve health and local air quality, reduce energy poverty, and build resilience to climate change. The International Energy Agency pointed out heat pumps are the central technology needed to transition to sustainable heating and argued that governments should work to accelerate rates of deployment. What are they waiting for?
Norman W. Park is Professor Emeritus, Clinical Psychology, York University, and a member of SCAN!’s Education Committee.
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