Heatwaves and hot days pose a risk of illness and death that is expected to worsen with climate change

Hunter residents are being warned about the dangers of extreme heat, amid concern that heat-related deaths and illnesses will increase in future.

Much of the Hunter experience 10 to 20 days each year with a maximum temperature greater than 35 degrees, research shows.

This is expected to worsen in the decades ahead, prompting a plea for people to change their behaviour or risk serious health problems.

NSW Health’s director of environmental health, Ben Scalley, said Australians traditionally think they’re “somewhat immune to heat”.

“Prolonged periods of very hot weather can be dangerous because hot weather can overheat the human body, leading to a range of serious illnesses,” Dr Scalley said.

“With more heatwaves, we could see greater health [effects] if we don’t change our behaviours.”

Hunter Joint Organisation of Councils deputy director Steve Wilson said heatwaves had not been “on the radar” as much as other extreme weather events.

Research conducted with the University of Newcastle showed a “very low level” of awareness that heatwaves were a risk.

“There were people who had fainted in heatwaves saying it wasn’t a problem,” he said.

“It’s in our psyche that we can handle it in Australia.

“The reality is a lot of people get sick and die.”

It has been estimated that 85 per cent of all deaths in Australia in natural hazards since 1900 were related to extreme heat.

In the Hunter, research shows that the Muswellbrook and Denman areas have recorded 20 to 30 hot days [above 35 degrees] a year.

The Upper Hunter is projected to experience an additional five to 10 hot days by 2039 and more than 20 extra hot days by 2070.

The Hunter, on average, is projected to experience an additional five hot days by 2039 and 14 more hot days by 2070.

In the future, heatwaves are predicted to occur more often, last longer and become hotter.

The intensity of a heatwave affects death and illness numbers, NSW environment office research shows.

Single hot days can also cause significant increases in death and illness.

Those most at risk include the elderly, the disadvantaged and those with a disability or illness.

A long-term NSW Health study recently found that extreme heatwaves increase deaths and ambulance callouts by about 11 per cent.

Mr Wilson said there had been an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves in the Hunter.

“That trend is projected to continue,” he said.

He said the Hunter was susceptible to heatwaves, given its number of elderly, disabled and culturally diverse communities.

He added that people on low incomes who could not afford airconditioning or insulation in their house, or who rent houses without these things, were at increased risk in hot conditions.

Dr Scalley said houses, cities and people’s lives can be redesigned to adapt to more extreme heat.

“For example, not exercising in the middle of the day when there’s a heatwave,” he said.

“And adjusting our plans to stay out of the heat of the day and stay in areas that are cooler – whether that be a well-designed house or a place that has airconditioning.”

Mr Wilson said it was important that houses be designed with cross ventilation and eaves for shading to provide cooler living spaces.

Planting more trees in urban and residential areas also helped.