Aileen McCarthy lives with her husband John in a 1976-built three bedroom bungalow in Cullen village near Limerick Junction, Co Tipperary. Five years ago she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and she had to give up her job with the HSE as a result. She also has type two diabetes. She takes various COPD medications including a nebuliser three times a day, breathing tablets and oxygen.
Until this summer her home was heated by an open fire with back boiler. In wintertime she had to burn mainly coal in order to keep the radiators warm. “Last winter I was spending €60 a week for coal alone. That’s a lot per week,” says Aileen. “The fumes were killing me, and the dust. I was often up during the night in order to feed the fire to keep it going.” It also meant having to clean out the fire every morning. “I used to have to use oxygen just to sweep the floor and do my jobs. I was getting constant chest infections. I was hospitalized twice this year. I knew I couldn’t go through another winter the way things were.”
She was going to convert to an oil boiler but in February a community worker in the HSE’s disability services, Anne Bradshaw, told her about the Tipperary Healthy Homes scheme that is managed by Tipperary Energy Agency and funded by Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.
For those who are on fuel Allowance, the scheme offers a 95% grant towards upgrading the energy efficiency and comfort of their homes.
“It sounded to me as if her health would benefit from the scheme,” explains Anne.
Aileen and John applied at the end of March and were given the go ahead in June. “The work started on the 3rd July and they were gone out on the 21st July,” says Aileen. “They left everything spotless and they accommodated me and my husband very well. We knew what was happening well in advance so were able to make a plan B for when they were here.”
The renovations and changes recommended by Tipperary Energy Agency were:
• Insulation of walls and the attic
• New triple glazed windows
• Removal of fireplace, blocking up of chimney
• Installation of air source heat pump to heat the radiators
• Replacement of steel radiators with aluminum radiators
• Installation of Demand Control Ventilation (DCV)
“Since the job was done I seem to have improved immensely,” she says.
“Now there’s no dirt, no dust and no fumes. It’s absolutely fantastic.”
“I have been able to reduce the oxygen. Now I am on oxygen all through the night and for an hour or two in the afternoon. Before, I could have been on it all day. I couldn’t even hang clothes on the line without oxygen I was so tired,” she says. This is not to say she isn’t still very restricted but she is not picking up infections like she was previously. “My lungs were getting congested. They are much clearer now.”
While her home was never mouldy prior to the renovations it was cold, which meant that when Aileen got up in the middle of the night to feed the fire in the kitchen it was always chilly. The temperature in the house was constantly changing depending on the strength of the fire. Now the temperature is set at 21 degrees in the kitchen and the sitting room, and 14 degrees in the bedroom.
For ventilation previously Aileen would always have the windows open for air.
“Now I have lovely ventilation going through the house,” she says. “I don’t know myself!”
Anne from the HSE has seen the positive impact of the home renovation. “I know the house and Aileen’s health and it has had a huge positive impact on her,” she says. “It’s so much easier and brighter and healthier for her now.”
The renovation works cost a total of €50,000 of which Aileen paid €1000. She was told her newly renovated house would cost half as much to heat as her old open fire and back boiler. “To be honest with you I don’t care how much it costs,” says Aileen. “When you come in from the wind and the rain, to have the comfort, it’s wonderful.”
However, her first electricity bill to include the new heating system only went up €50 compared to her previous electricity bills, to €183.75 for two months. “That includes everything electrical,” she says with delight, reiterating that she has no solid fuel expenses anymore.
So what do the medics have to say about her health now?
Aileen’s GP says he’s noticed a difference in her. “He’s very happy with me,” she says, “although he doesn’t see me often now!” At her first lung specialist check up following the home renovations there was no further deterioration in her lung capacity, which remains at 17 per cent.
“It didn’t get any worse which means I am holding my own. It’s great news,” she says. “My specialist found my energy levels were good and she was very impressed to hear I hadn’t been at the doctors.” She is hoping that she won’t have to be hospitalized again this winter, thanks to the improvements in the comfort of her home. So what’s her verdict on the Tipperary Healthy Homes scheme? “It’s made an awful difference to my life and it’s only a few short months,” she says. “I am blessed with it.”
DISCLAIMER: Tipperary Healthy homes scheme seeks to make buildings healthier, however no medical evidence or analysis has yet been completed by the Tipperary Energy Agency. While the participants have noticed an improvement in health outcomes, they are yet insufficient in duration and number to prove any improvement in health outcomes. The Tipperary Energy Agency guarantees no improvement in health outcomes by taking part in the scheme.
The Nationally funded warmth and wellbeing pilot, available here, operated by the HSE and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is currently gathering this evidence and will report in due course. A recent study published in the journal of indoor air, from the university of Otago in New Zealand (details available here), directly linked both the instance of mould to asthma, but also the severity of asthma to the amount of mould present in bedrooms.