The applications poured into Chelsea City Hall this month. More than 700 for 73 free air conditioners. Josefa Mendez filed one, with the help of her 16-year-old son.
“I don’t know how to read or write,” Mendez said. “So I told him, ‘Mijo, you fill out the application because God willing we can win the air conditioner.’ ”
Chelsea held an online lottery. Families with children, elders, people with chronic conditions and those with the lowest income got priority. Mendez has asthma and several other ailments that are worse when it’s hot.
After getting their application in, Mendez and her son prayed before a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When their portable unit arrived, Mendez placed it beneath the shrine in her three room apartment.
“I have a lot of faith in the virgin of Guadalupe because everything I ask of her, she gives me,” Mendez said.
Mendez cleans houses for a living. She’s lost work during the pandemic and is two months late with her rent.
“These air conditioners, you can tell they’re expensive. They don’t look cheap,” she said. “People with jobs can buy them, but us who are sick and without jobs can’t.”
In Massachusetts, heat has long been seen as necessary for survival. Cooling has been optional, more of a luxury for those who can afford it. But some of the state’s warmest communities say that no longer makes sense.
This summer, the Boston-based Barr Foundation is spending $800,000 on residential and other cooling assistance projects in seven cities including Chelsea. The Boston project is working with medical providers and community centers to screen for clients most in need. Brockton is distributing fliers about the health impacts of extreme heat and first aid kits as well as fans and air conditioners.
In Chelsea, air conditioners come with a $300 check for utility assistance because some people who receive the units can’t afford to run them. There is some emergency utility assistance in federal and state housing relief packages coming out of COVID. But Massachusetts and most New England states do not typically use federal aid for cooling, just for heating.
With demand high for cooling relief right now, Chelsea is pulling money for air conditioners from other programs. It expects to deliver units to about half of the residents who applied. But holding an annual AC lottery is not a long term solution.
“Historically, cooling hasn’t kind of risen to the top as a priority,” said Alex Train, Chelsea’s director of housing and community development. “Now, given an increasing number of days that are over 95 degrees as well as the general increase in average summertime temperatures, cooling is of paramount priority.”
A state climate change clearinghouse shows average high temperatures will continue to rise four degrees over the next 20 years. So Train is looking at whether Chelsea can legally require housing developers and landlords to provide a cooling system as is required for heat. Next summer, the city plans to shift more money to utility assistance, connect residents and landlords with energy audits and help upgrade inefficient cooling units.
There’s growing evidence that electric pumps provide the most energy efficient way to heat and cool homes. A report out of Harvard and Brown Universities shows households in Massachusetts could save $172 a year, and the state could save $29 million a year if these pumps were installed instead of most existing HVAC systems.
“There may be some cases in which a traditional AC still makes sense, said Alexander Gard-Murray, one of the report’s co-authors, “but we should have a heat pump-first approach.”
Some doctors, nurses and other health care providers are also trying to figure out how to make sure patients with lung ailments, high blood pressure, heart problems and some mental health conditions stay cool as temperatures rise.
What’s shocking to me is that health insurers will pay for all kinds of medical devices for which there’s extremely limited evidence that they affect patient outcomes,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We have decades of research that shows that air conditioning is critical for survival for people at risk during heat waves, and yet insurers don’t cover it because they see it as not medically necessary.”
The debate about who should provide cooling aid and how is becoming more urgent as heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Canada kill hundreds of residents. A 2020 study says as many as 12,000 premature deaths every year in the U.S. could be tied to heat: exhaustion from outdoor work, hyperthermia, inflamed chronic conditions, and stroke.
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Greg Wellenius at the Boston University School of Public Health says deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the health impacts of heat.
“There’s mounting evidence that more people go to the ER on days of high heat,” said Wellenius.
But boosting use of air conditioning is controversial. Some public health and environmental leaders worry that more demand for electricity will exacerbate the problem they’re needed to address: global warming. More efficient air-conditioning will help. But Wellenius says he appreciates the concern about increased energy use.
“On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine — or it’s hard for me to imagine — how we justify withholding a potentially life-saving treatment from people that are at high risk of heat related illness,” he said.