Emergencies and extreme weather
- Asthma, hay fever and pollen
- Avoiding heat-related stress
- Bushfire air quality
- Bushfire Smoke
- Treated timber ash
- Power Outages
The purpose of this fact sheet is to advise individuals about pollen allergies and how affected community members can reduce their symptoms during the ACT pollen season.
See these fact sheets on how to avoid heat-related stress.
For more information, call the Health Protection Service on (02) 6205 1700.
- Avoiding Heat-Related Stress fact sheet
- Information for Aged Care fact sheet
- Information for Childcare Centres fact sheet
- Information for Schools fact sheet
- Information for Events fact sheet
To protect public health and the environment, the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) recommends the measurement of six criteria pollutants to give an indication of ambient air quality.
These six pollutants (ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, sulfur dioxide, lead, and carbon monoxide) have the potential to affect human health as well as the environment.
Air quality in ACT is monitored routinely at several sites across Canberra for these pollutants as well as visual distance (which is a surrogate for very small particles). Sulfur dioxide is not measured routinely in Canberra because there is no heavy industry and sulfur containing fuel such as coal is not routinely burnt.
If air quality in Canberra is considered a hazard, eg to asthma sufferers, a health warning will be issued. The warning will remind asthmatics to continue their medication and consult their general practitioner if they have any difficulties. Vigorous exercise should be avoided and if possible individuals should stay inside during the hazard period.
If the measured pollutants indicate a health hazard in the future, a health warning will be issued as a media release.
Contact the Health Protection Service on (02) 6205 1700 for further information.
What is bushfire smoke?
Smoke from bushfires (and hazard reduction burns) is made up of small particles, gases and water vapour. The small particles are not visible to the human eye. The gases in bushfire smoke may include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.
Bushfire smoke exposure and health effects
Fine smoke particles affect the human breathing system. The smaller or finer the particles, the deeper they can go into the lungs when inhaled.
If present in high enough concentrations, these particles and gases can cause a variety of health problems, such as itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis.
Smoke particles can also aggravate existing lung conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma as well as some cardiac conditions. Symptoms can occur for several days after exposure, so people with the above conditions need to be vigilant with their treatment programs. If you have a heart or lung condition (including asthma), you should take your medication and follow your treatment plan as prescribed by your doctor.
In addition to people with heart and lung conditions, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and people over 65 years of age are also sensitive to the effects of smoke.
Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice from their doctor. Anyone experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical assistance.
Healthy adults generally find that any symptoms they have developed during exposure to bushfire smoke resolve after the smoke disappears.
How will I know if bushfire smoke concentrations are dangerous?
Usually bushfire smoke can be seen as a visible haze and can be detected by its distinctive smell. As a general rule the more visible the smoke haze is, and the stronger the odour, the more likely it is that the smoke contains concentrations of gases and particles that are hazardous to health.
Whilst a visible haze will indicate the presence of bushfire smoke, the concentration of hazardous particles and gases will be dependent on a number of factors including:
- The size of the bushfire and the amount of smoke produced;
- The distance the smoke has travelled from the source of the bushfire; and
- The prevailing weather conditions.
Air quality in the ACT is monitored routinely at several sites across Canberra for pollutants. If monitoring determines that air quality in Canberra is a hazard, a health warning will be issued as a media release. For more information on air quality go to ACT Air Quality Monitoring.
The following precautions can help you to minimise adverse effects from exposure to bushfire smoke:
- Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed, or
- If possible, stay in air-conditioned premises, switch your air-conditioner to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ to reduce the amount smoke entering the building.
- Avoid vigorous exercise, especially if you have asthma or other chronic respiratory and/or chronic cardiac diseases.
- It is especially important for people with asthma to continue their medication and consult their general practitioner if they have any difficulties.
If you must be outdoors when bushfire smoke is present consider using a mask designed to filter fine particles. Use a mask rated either P1 or P2. These types of masks are available from hardware retailers. P2 masks are more effective in blocking the finest particles, however all masks have to be worn in accordance with the manufactures instructions in order to provide adequate protection.
If you are particularly susceptible to bushfire smoke, and if safe to do so during a bushfire event, consider:
- Staying with a friend or relative whose house has clean indoor air; or
- Visiting a local air-conditioned building such as a library, community centre or shopping centre; or
- Leaving the area for a cleaner environment.
- If it is safe to do so, check on elderly neighbours or other people who you think might need extra help.
If you or anyone in your family is experiencing symptoms that may be due to bushfire smoke exposure, seek medical advice from your local doctor. Anyone experiencing difficulty breathing or chest pain should seek urgent medical assistance. For more information visit the ACT Health website.
Flooding in the ACT is caused by rivers overflowing their banks or by localised rainfall at a rate that exceeds the local drains capacity, flash flooding.
In most cases, people will want to return to their homes as soon as possible after the flood waters have receded. While this should be encouraged, residents should only return once basic needs are available and the site is cleared of any hazards and declared safe by the relevant government agency.
Treated timber is commonly used for pergolas, decking, cubby houses, claddings, posts, gates, animal enclosures, and landscaping timbers. Many of these structures may be destroyed or damaged during bushfires and the burnt ash may present a hazard.
Treated timber, if burnt, can produce an ash that may contain arsenic, chromium and copper. While arsenic is the most toxic, all three may present a hazard if ingested.
- Inhalation would not normally result in poisoning in these situations.
- Children, pets and farm animals should be kept away from land where treated timber ash is present.
- Young children, especially those under 5 years, are at an increased risk from personal contact and ingestion.
- This hazard is not normally encountered as the public is aware that treated timber should not be burned.
- In domestic situations, small amounts of treated timber ash can be put in a sealed container and disposed in the garbage.
- The ash and any remaining burnt timber in destroyed properties will be removed during the clean up operations.
- Ash that may be a hazard in parks and public grounds will be collected during the clean up operations.
Personal protection when collecting ash
- Do not touch the ash with your bare skin and avoid disturbing or spreading it.
- Wear gloves while working with the ash.
- Moisten the ash prior to handling with a shovel.
- Remove and wash clothing. Clean footwear.
- Wash your hands after finishing work and before eating or food preparation.
- The risk of poisoning from ingestion of treated timber ash is very low. If in doubt seek medical advice.
Power outages can occur at any time from planned maintenance works to a significant emergency. This can impact upon residents’ health, especially during very hot or cold weather, or for residents who require electricity for medical support. Residents can take the following steps to ensure that their health is not impacted.
Before a Planned Power Outage
- Charge your mobile phone and other IT devices in case of emergency calls;
- Consider moving to an alternative location during the power outage;
- Consume and reduce amount of perishable food stored in refrigerator and freezer to avoid wastage (unused food can be moved from the fridge to the freezer prior to outage);
- Buy non-perishable foods to remove dependence on refrigerator;
- In addition, if a person in the household has medical or mobility issues and requires power for essential medical equipment:
- Register with your energy provider as a life support customer;
- Put in place your management plan for not having power. The plan could cover:
- What steps will you take – go to a friend’s house?
- How will you get there – do you have transport and will you be able to transport your equipment?
- Keep backup medical equipment fully charged at all times and ready to go if you need to use it;
- Use alternate storage for refrigerated medications (E.g. esky with ice);
- Use alternate power supplies to power medical equipment; and
- Contact a relative, friend, or carer to help you during the outage if required.
During a Power Outage
- If the outage is occurring during summer or hot weather:
- Drink plenty of water, even when not thirsty;
- Wear lightweight, light-coloured clothing;
- If you remain at home, move to the lowest, coolest, part of your home;
- For extended periods, consider going to a movie theatre, shopping mall or home of a relative or friend.
- If the outage is occurring during winter or cold weather:
- Put on layers of warm clothing; and
- For extended periods, consider going to a home of a relative or friend, or a public library that has heating.
Food Safety during a Power Outage
- Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed (Only open when necessary):
- An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours;
- A full freezer will keep the temperature cold for about 48 hours;
- Bagged ice can be placed under food packages or an insulating blanket can be placed over cold or frozen food;
- Throw away any food that is spoiled:
- Throw out perishable refrigerated food if the power has been off for more than 4 hours;
- If frozen food thaws, either cook and eat it immediately, or throw it out, do not refreeze thawed food;
- Food should not be eaten if it has an unusual smell, colour, or texture; and
- IF IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT.
- Contact your doctor if you are concerned about medications having spoiled.
For Further Information
- For information about the power outage, contact ActewAGL on 6248 3555.
- For emergency help when your life is at risk, call 000.
- Further information on food safety and heat-related stress is available on the ACT Health website.
Please note: Having a backup plan is still important even if you are a registered life support customer...unexpected power outages can happen.