Of the 140 Canberrans who die each year because of health issues caused or exacerbated by cold, more than one third of deaths could be attributed to cold housing, an ACT renting organisation has found.
Better Renting's Unsafe as Houses report, published on Monday, draws on international research, which suggests between 30 and 50 per cent of "excess winter mortality" is related to cold living environments.
Based on the ACT's current population, that could mean dozens of Canberrans are dying from cold housing-related illnesses like cardiovascular or respiratory disease, the report said.
The direct correlation between these health issues and cold environments wasn't always recognised.
University of Adelaide built environment research fellow Dr Lyrian Daniel said, "You don't see an instant response to being cold; it might be, instead, exacerbating an existing condition that someone is living with.
"They might not necessarily go, 'Oh, that's because last week I was a bit concerned about my next energy bill so I didn't use my heater; that's why I'm seeing an increase in [negative health impacts] two weeks later'.
"Whereas in heat conditions, we see that really quick response between the environment that someone is living in and health outcomes, whether it be with hospital admissions or presentations, or even mortality."
Experts have confirmed the relationship between cold homes and health impacts. Canberra-based cardiologist Dr Arnagretta Hunter recently called on the government to consider a project that monitors the benefits of improved insulation in territory residents' homes.
"Research has shown that a cold environment increases the number of days off school for children, influences days off work for adults, and influences hospital admissions," she said.
The risks of cold housing were increased in Australia compared with other parts of the world, as the country had lower housing standards, the Better Renting report said.
An earlier study by the organisation found more than 43 per cent of Canberra rentals with a listed energy efficiency rating are rated zero, while most do not disclose a rating.
Queensland University of Technology health professor Adrian Barnett said, "Every winter, most Australian cities experience a spike in deaths and hospitals have their busiest times.
"This is not simply because of the flu, but is also caused by cardiovascular problems such as strokes and myocardial infarctions, which are caused by temperatures being too low inside our homes.
"These deaths and hospitalisations are completely avoidable, because countries like Sweden and Canada with far harsher winters, have far fewer winter deaths than Australia."
Better Renting chief executive Joel Dignam is calling on the government to introduce minimum health and safety standards for rentals.
Queensland and Victoria had legislated on the issue, while the ACT government "sat on its hands", he said.
"Unlike homeowners, people renting in cold homes cannot make the improvements that would keep them healthy," Mr Dignam said.
"This is a tragic situation. The government has a responsibility to require property investors to make sure their properties are fit to live in during winter."
Macquarie resident Elaine, who asked for her surname to be withheld, developed pneumonia twice while living in an apartment in her mid-70s. She is now 83 years old.
Her doctor asked about her living conditions and suggested a lack of heating could be causing her health problems.
"My husband and I had struggled to pay our previous electricity bill, which was over $600 for one quarter and had consequently cut down on our use of heating," she said.
"We no longer scrimp on heating our house because I value my health more."
An ACT government spokesman said it provided a range of programs, energy efficiency rebates and advice to support low income households to improve their warmth and comfort, and to reduce energy bills.
The annual concession amount for 2019-20 was $700 for holders of a Centrelink pensioner concession card, low income health care card, gold card, or Veterans' Affairs pensioner concession card.
"The ACT government is also developing a discussion paper as part of a review into energy efficiency ratings in the territory," the spokesman said.
"The review into the territory's energy efficiency ratings scheme is a parliamentary agreement item with the ACT Greens."