What is the issue?
Significant bushfires are burning across Victoria and impacting communities across the state. While a period of milder weather suppressed the immediate fire danger, people are starting to return home and should be aware of the hazards after a bushfire. In addition to smoke, other hazards include contaminated environment, water and spoiled food which can increase the risk of gastroenteritis.
Smoke levels will fluctuate depending upon fire activity and the prevailing weather conditions.
This situation is changing rapidly so health professionals are urged to remain vigilant and aware of announcements that may impact them and the care of their patients.
Who is at risk?
Bushfire smoke can affect anyone but particularly people over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions, including asthma. Risks from contaminated water and spoiled food will also have a greater impact on the elderly, young children and pregnant women.
Hazardous air quality can lead to:
- Serious aggravation of health effects in people over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions and diabetes,
- Serious increase in respiratory and other effects in everyone else and many people might have symptoms such as cough, wheeze or shortness of breath.
Other potential health impacts following bushfires include:
- Gastrointestinal illness from consuming contaminated food and water, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
- Zoonotic diseases from contact with injured or dead animals leading to fever, headache, lethargy, cough or pneumonia.
- Injuries from hazards around fire-affected properties.
- Mental health impacts.
- Check VicEmergency to be aware of the current fire risk in your area and follow all advice provided.
- Stay in touch with your local Primary Health Network to be aware of any changes to health services in your area. The fires in Eastern Victoria are expected to burn for some time. As a result of the fire activity and weather conditions, air quality may deteriorate because of smoke.
- Check the EPA Victoria AirWatch website to view air quality across the state.
- When air quality is hazardous, everyone including children should avoid smoke by staying indoors and keeping activity levels low, and where possible, taking a break in air-conditioned buildings.
- Keep your indoor air as clean as possible by not smoking, lighting candles or vacuuming and turn air conditioning units onto recirculate if they have this function.
- Ventilate your home when outdoor air quality improves.
- Ensure those with asthma have asthma management plans, medication on hand and that they are activating plans based on symptoms and exposure.
- When driving, have windows closed and turn air onto ‘recirculate’.
- Face masks should not be a substitute for avoiding smoke exposure.
- ‘P2’ masks (also known as ‘N95’ masks) can help protect against particulate matter in smoke but will only do so if fitted properly.
- Face masks have not been designed specifically for children and are difficult to fit properly and maintain in place, which is necessary for them to be effective.
- Face masks are being prioritised for distribution to people in fire-affected areas, including those with heart or lung conditions, people over 65, pregnant women, people whose only option is to work outside in smoke or people returning to their properties in burnt out areas.
- Face masks are not being provided to the general community. They have been distributed to areas initially declared in the State of Disaster, in line with the national consensus statement on facemasks. Those most affected by hazardous air quality levels daily are being prioritised.
- Discuss the use of masks with patients who have an existing heart or lung condition.
- A fact sheet about how to use P2/N95 face masks is available on the department’s website.
- Be alert to salmonella, campylobacter infections and other pathogens through contact with contaminated food, water and the environment. Viral pathogens such as norovirus and influenza will also be easily spread in areas where people are grouping together, such as shelters, or where access to good hygiene facilities is restricted.
- When returning home, all foods that have been fire damaged or affected by heat should be discarded. This includes all perishable and non-perishable foods (such as cans or packaged foods). Power outages can also leave perishable food that has been refrigerated unsafe to eat.
- Encourage good hand hygiene and food safety practices for all people in bushfire affected areas, particularly where disruption to power supplies make it difficult to store food at appropriate temperatures. People should wear gloves and masks when handling dead animals and should wear robust clothes and closed shoes or boots.
- Private drinking water in fire-affected areas could be contaminated from debris, ash, dead animals, aerial fire retardants and water-bombing. If the water tastes, looks or smells unusual, do not drink, use for food preparation, brushing teeth or give to animals (pets or livestock). Bottled water should be used if there are concerns about the quality of the drinking water. Everyone in an area heavily impacted by smoke, especially those in sensitive groups, should follow advice related to evacuation or temporary relocation.
Relief and recovery information
Bushfire warnings, relief and recovery
AirWatch / Air quality monitoring
Smoke and your health
Face masks (fitting instructions) - see 'After a fire: using your personal protective kit'
Private drinking water supplies
Food safety during power outages
Red Cross resources
For information related to disease outbreaks: DHHS Communicable Disease Prevention and Control section on 1300 651 160 (24 hours).
For food safety issues: DHHS Food Safety Unit on 1300 364 352.
For issues related to environmental public health: DHHS Environmental Health on 1300 761 874.
Air quality and smoke: Environment Protection Authority on 1300 372 842.