Aussies’ Sporting Image Hit by Need to Supersize Toilets, Coffins

By Amy Coopes
Agence France-Presse

SYDNEY ~ Australians may pride themselves on their sporting prowess, but moves to supersize toilets, coffins and ambulances are signs the country is grappling with record levels of obesity.

“Australia has an illusion of being a nation of sportsmen and women,” said Deakin University obesity expert Boyd Swinburn.

“But our engagement in sport is usually 50,000 people in desperate need of exercise sitting down watching a bunch of footballers in desperate need of a rest,” he told AFP.

More than 7.5 million Australians are now estimated to be overweight or obese, accounting for two-thirds of all men, half the women and one quarter of the nation’s children.

International studies consistently rank Australia among the fattest countries in the world, with the nation’s Baker Heart Institute in 2008 suggesting it faced a “fat bomb” outranking even that in the United States.

The Royal Flying Doctors, Australia’s iconic outback air ambulance, is the latest service to supersize, announcing last month that it was seeking larger aircraft to cope with heavier patients.

“Obesity stands alongside our ageing population as the most significant challenge facing our health system,” an ambulance spokeswoman said.

“The prevalence of overweight and obesity within our community is at an all-time high,” she said.

The new Flying Doctors planes will be able to carry total patient loads of up to 260 kilograms, while with current aircraft individual patients weighing more than 140 kilograms must travel by road.

The planes will join a fleet of “mega lift” road ambulances already in use in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state.

A typical “mega lift” road ambulance operation in New South Wales is used for patients heavier than 180 kilograms and can involve police and firefighters, the spokeswoman said.

More than 1,500 patients have been transported by the special ambulances since 2002, and the number is growing, she said.

For funeral directors the weight issue is one of style as well as substance, according to Australian Funeral Directors Association president Wes Heritage.

“To make sure that everything still looks like a dignified funeral, I think that’s one of our biggest challenges,” said Heritage.

“Because sometimes when you’re handling the casket of a person that’s in the high 200s and even 300 kilograms it makes it very, very difficult to keep all that as normal as possible.”

Pallbearers needed to be trained in correct lifting technique, with the standard coffin size growing from 18 inches (46 centimeters) across the shoulder to 20 inches.

Most coffin-makers now stocked a range right up to 32 inches – once considered a “custom order,” said Heritage.

Crematoriums were upgrading their ovens to expand door widths closer to 100 centimeters (40 inches) and gone were the days of a “standard” grave, he said.

“Cemeteries have to be very much aware coffins and caskets and people now just don’t come in a standard size,” he said.

The standard strength of toilet seats is slated to triple, after the national safety watchdog Standards Australia found the maximum unsupported weight capacity of 45 kilograms was not enough.

Toilet seats will soon have to pass flex and rigidity tests at 150 kilograms – “a precautionary measure to accommodate the increasing size of humans,” a Standards spokeswoman said.

Researchers have also asked Standards Australia to boost the maximum weight test for car safety seats for children, after a study last year found 40 percent were too heavy to safely use them.

The latest economic modeling puts the cost of Australia’s obesity burden at AUS$873 million (US$567 million) a year, with the health system struggling under the burden of an increasing overweight population.

Swinburn said, however, it was “total rubbish” to suggest Australia was the fattest country in the world.

“But we are in no place to say we have got this thing beat. We have got a serious problem that’s not going to turn around overnight,” he said.

“I think Australia does very well on the sporting field internationally, but in terms of how the general public fares in their healthy lifestyles, we have a lot to answer for.”

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