Good home heating cuts school absences for children with asthma

Improving heating in New Zealand homes with children who suffer from asthma has a significant impact on reducing the number of days children are away from school.

A recently published study by the University of Otago, Wellington, shows that installing heat pumps, wood or pellet burners, or flued gas heaters is the key to cutting school sick days for children with asthma.

The study of 269 children by the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme shows that more effective energy-efficient heating in homes previously using unflued gas heaters, open fires, or low-kilowatt electric heaters, reduces winter school absences for asthmatic children by an average of 21% – or nearly 2 days in the winter middle terms.

'This represents a large number of preventable school absences when taken over the one in four (148 000) children in New Zealand between the ages of 5 and 14 who have asthma,' says lead investigator Sarah Free.

'Overall this corresponds to about 84 000 potentially preventable days of school absence each winter for the asthmatic children, and of course we expect the additional heating to have also improved the health of other children and teenagers in the house.'

It is well recognised that New Zealand houses are poorly insulated and cold by international Standards. One million houses need retrofitted insulation and better heating, while 2% of homes use no heating at all.

The average indoor temperatures in many New Zealand houses are below the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended minimum of 18°C.

For New Zealand children younger than 5 years old, mortality associated with respiratory diseases is estimated to be 2.5 times higher in winter. Similarly, hospital admissions for children under the age of 5 years old are higher during winter and higher for those living in pre-war housing and lower socio-economic areas.

A large number of New Zealand homes (30%) use cheaper unflued gas heating, which produces significant amounts of water vapour, encouraging the growth of mould and fungi which may aggravate asthma symptoms. These heaters also produce high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), shown to make asthma worse.

The potential impact of the projected electricity price rises this winter is concerning to Ms Free. 'As power prices are set to rise in most parts of New Zealand this winter there is a risk that families will cut back on home heating to save money. This study makes me worry about the educational impacts of that price rise.'

The study supplied half of 409 households with better heating in Porirua, the Hutt Valley, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Bluff. The other 50% of households without heaters acted as a control group. Then school absences for asthmatic children were checked with respective schools during the 2 winter terms.

'One additional aspect of this study is that overseas research has shown that improved attendance at school means better academic results. So having a warm home helps school achievement. It also assists family relationships as people feel better about staying at home and have increased enthusiasm for family life,' Ms Free said.

This study has recently been published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. It was funded by the Health Research Council, Contact Energy, Ministry for the Environment, EECA, Hutt Valley District Health Board, Capital and Coast District Health Board, and the LPG Association.

Source: University of Otago, Wellington, media release dated 23 March 2010.

Related Standards

  • AS/NZS 2918:2001 Domestic solid fuel burning appliances – Installation
  • AS/NZS 4013:1999 Domestic solid fuel burning appliances – Method for determination of flue gas emission
  • AS/NZS 4012:1999 Domestic solid fuel burning appliances – Method for determination of power output and efficiency
  • NZS 4246:2006 Energy efficiency – Installing insulation in residential buildings

Please note: Amendment 1 to NZS 4246:2006 is currently being finalised. Once the Amendment is published, it will be available separately and incorporated into NZS 4246:2006. The Amendment is expected to be published April 2010.

(Note – prices subject to change from 1 May 2010)

Published in consumer and occupational safety.