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The Department of Health maintains the Latrobe Valley’s prolonged exposure to smoke is not likely to cause long-term health issues in residents.
However, according to one Monash University researcher currently visiting Traralgon, there is little data on the long-term impacts of bushfire smoke on the community.
Between 10am and 11am yesterday, the Environment Protection Authority recorded on its website an air quality rating of 526 at Morwell East. The worst air rating on the scale ‘very poor’, is considered 150.
Department of Health Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Rosemary Lester said she did not expect to see “significant long-term health impacts” as a result of the air quality situation.
“Although it is frustrating and irritating for locals, in the scheme of things, it’s really not a long exposure,” Dr Lester said.
“There’s certainly no evidence the sorts of exposure we’re looking at will increase the risk of long-term problems.”
Dr Lester said carbon monoxide levels had fluctuated in the past few days, but had not reached the same heights as Saturday.
“Acute exposure to very high levels is very serious and it is a concern particularly for pregnant women and children but I must stress, the levels we’re seeing at the moment, we believe don’t pose any threat to the community,” she said.
In a remarkable coincidence, researchers in a Monash University study into the health effects of fire on the community using planned burns, are in Traralgon this week for a pre-organised visit.
Participants from Traralgon will complete a survey and undergo medical tests as part of the study, which was commissioned by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.
It was hoped this week’s tests would establish a baseline or ‘healthy’ readings of respiratory and cardiovascular health ahead of further testing when there is a planned burn in the area.
“We have bushfire smoke exposure (in the community), it’s not what we had in mind, but it will be an interesting addition to the study,” lead researcher Dr Martine Dennekamp said.
Dr Dennekamp said there were few studies which looked at the long-term health effects of smoke exposure, and those available focused on emergency department presentations and hospital admissions.
She said this was the first study to use planned burns as part of its investigation and would measure markers in the blood for chance of future heart disease.
“We’re trying to see whether we can expect long-term effects from individual-level exposure,” Dr Dennekamp said.
Short-term symptoms as a result of the smoke include itchy eyes, sore throat and coughing and the Department has advised residents in the worst hit areas of Morwell to consider staying with a friend or relative outside the township.
If residents have wheezing or difficulty breathing they should visit their doctor or phone Nurse on Call on 1300 606 024.
One Morwell general practice reported a major spike in presentations for respiratory and cardiovascular issues in the past few days.
The Healthcare Centre’s Dr William Ghattas said he had seen five times the patients he would normally see for respiratory issues, and this was a conservative figure, as some patients who sought appointments were not able to see a doctor.
“Patients are complaining of shorter breath, feeling unwell and dizziness and we are seeing asthmatics,” Dr Ghattas said.
He advised residents to avoid smoke as much as possible and wear a mask when removing ash from their cars.
Those with existing heart or lung conditions or asthma should follow their individual treatment plans.
Latrobe Regional Hospital and Ambulance Victoria recorded a “slight increase” in respiratory issue presentations in the past few days.
Latrobe Community Health Service medical director Dr James Bvirakare urged the community to look out for family members or neighbours who might be vulnerable to the smoky conditions.
LCHS has GP and respiratory nurse services available by phoning 1800 242 696.
Workplace safety urged
The Victorian WorkCover Authority is advising Latrobe Valley workplaces to take steps to reduce the impact of bushfire and coal fire smoke on their staff.
VWA executive director of health and safety Len Neist said workplaces should take note of the advice issued by the Department of Health in relation to people undertaking strenuous activity outdoors, particularly those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.
“We’re asking businesses to review their systems of work and consider if measures need to be put in place to protect staff from the risks associated with smoke,” Mr Neist said.
“Reassigning staff with pre-existing conditions to non-strenuous, indoor work is one action workplaces can take to reduce risk to their staff.
“Have a conversation in your workplace about the conditions and encourage staff to speak up if they identify any risks to health and safety.”