This information is for landowners, businesses and community members affected by floodwaters. It has information about managing health risks from flood waters and guidance on waste disposal after a flood.
Heavy rainfall may cause flooding. Floodwaters carry risks such as water-borne diseases. Proper management of floodwater and waste can help to reduce risks. After a flood, there may be health challenges related to reuse or disposal of sandbags and other flood-related waste.
Agencies involved in flood management in Victoria
Flood management is shared responsibility among agencies and including but not limited to:
- Your local council
- Emergency Recovery Victoria
- Agriculture Victoria
- Environment Protection Authority
- Victorian Fisheries Authority
- Catchment Management Authorities
- Water corporations.
If there is a flood event and you are in immediate danger and require urgent assistance, dial 000. If you are not in immediate danger, but you require immediate relief assistance, call Emergency Recovery Victoria's hotline on 1800 560 760
EPA's role during a flood emergency
EPA is a technical support agency. This means we provide technical and scientific information and advice to emergency and recovery services.
Download our flood safety and clean up factsheet (PDF, 470KB) or keep reading for further guidance.
Health risks from floodwaters
Floodwater is often contaminated by overflowing sewerage or septic systems, and by agricultural or industrial wastes and chemicals.
The main health risks from floodwaters are the transmission of water-borne diseases. Contact with floodwaters can lead to stomach illness, wound and skin infections, and rashes. Eating contaminated fruits and vegetables that have been in contact with floodwaters can also lead to illness.
To protect your health, assume all floodwaters are contaminated. Avoid contact with polluted water and soil if possible.
How to protect your health during a flood
Floodwaters can contain many things that may harm human health, such as:
- human or livestock waste
- household waste
- industrial and medical hazardous waste
- lumber, vehicles and building materials
- debris that might contain asbestos or other harmful materials
- wild animals such as rodents and snakes
Assume all floodwaters are contaminated
Don’t wade through water, even shallow water; and try to avoid contact with mud and dirt. Wear gloves if you are handling pets or items that have been in contact with floodwater, mud or dirt.
If you cannot avoid contact with floodwaters, we have prepared the following tips to help you avoid infection.
Before entering floodwater
- Cover cuts and scratches with waterproof bandages.
- Wear protective clothing such as rubber boots or solid shoes, rubber gloves, and goggles.
After coming into contact with floodwater, mud or soil
- Wash your skin with soap and clean water as soon as possible. If you don’t have soap or water, use alcohol-based wipes or sanitiser.
- Wash contaminated clothes in hot water and detergent before reuse.
- Take care of any wounds, and seek medical attention if necessary.
- If you are using watercrafts such as kayaks, boats or paddleboards during a flood, make sure they’re cleaned well afterwards to avoid contamination and infection.
Wear gloves and always wash your hands thoroughly after participating in flood clean-up activities
Avoid swimming in waterways or beaches after a flood
EPA advises against swimming at all waterways and beaches for 48 hours after a heavy rain, and for much longer in the event of a flood. You should avoid contact with the water if:
- you notice the water is discoloured or has an odour
- there is sea foam following flooding or heavy rainfall
- there is a current EPA water quality alert.
Swimming in poor water quality can lead to illnesses, such as gastroenteritis. You should see your doctor if you suspect you are unwell from swimming.
Increased risk of algal bloom outbreaks after a flood
Algae and cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) are organisms that live in water and can grow quickly, or “bloom." This can occur in slow-moving/stagnant water which contains nutrients. This is often due to runoff containing fertilisers and wastewater which may contain sewage.
Blooms can look like foam, scum, mats, oil sheens, or paint on the surface of the water. A bloom can change the colour of the water to green, blue, brown, red, or another colour. Some algal blooms may not be visible.
After a large flood event, increased nutrients, low flows and light can create ideal conditions for algal bloom growth. This can lead to large outbreaks. Algal blooms can affect fresh water environments such as rivers, creeks, lakes and other inland water bodies. They can also affect marine environments like Port Phillip Bay and coastal waters.
Most algae are harmless, but some are harmful to people and animals. Some algae can produce toxins which can cause serious illness.
Harmful algae can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth with direct contact. Drinking algae-affected water or consuming food (such as fish or shellfish) containing these toxins can lead to gastroenteritis. This can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, fevers and headaches. These toxins may also affect the liver or nervous system and have more severe health outcomes.
If you are concerned about your health, you should seek medical advice immediately.
Drinking water from a private or town water supply
Floodwater and flood-related debris can contaminate private water supplies. If your water supply looks, smells or tastes unusual, do not use it. Do not use potentially contaminated water for drinking, preparing food or bathing. Do not give it to animals.
- Department of Health has guidance on the use of private water sources during a flood event.
- If your town drinking water is impacted by a flood, contact your local water authority for information.
If there is a flood and your water supply looks, smells or tastes unusual, do not use it.
Risk of foodborne illness from eating flood-impacted produce
If your garden has been in contact with floodwaters, your homegrown produce may not be safe to eat. While some of your fruits and vegetables may be salvageable, if you are in any doubt, it is best to dispose of them.
Do not eat:
- leafy vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage, lettuce and kale
- produce that was already damaged before the flood. For example, a tomato with split skin with exposed flesh will not be safe to eat.
- raw soft fruits, such as strawberries or raspberries. They cannot be washed thoroughly, so they are only safe if they can be cooked.
Use caution before eating:
- vegetables with protective shells, husks or skins, such as peas and sweet corn. They should be thoroughly washed, peeled and cooked before eating
- fruits and vegetables that were immature at the time of flooding. Although they should be safe to eat by the time they are ready to harvest, they should still be washed thoroughly before eating.
While some of your homegrown fruits and veggies may be salvageable after a flood, if you are in any doubt, it is best not to eat them.
Eating fish from flood affected waters
Water from floods is usually contaminated and it is not safe for fishing.
Do not eat fish if:
- it was dead when you found it
- it was alive when you caught it, but it looks diseased, stressed, lethargic or is behaving in an unusual way.
Use caution before eating:
- fish taken from water, where flooding has passed. They should be thoroughly rinsed and gutted before cooking.
Soil testing for flood-impacted residents
We are collecting soil samples from flood-affected areas to assist residents in their clean-up efforts following recent floods. Soil samples will be collected and analysed for bacteria (E.coli), trace elements such as metals and metalloids, and organic chemicals such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and petroleum hydrocarbons.
Please note that due to the time it can take to transport samples over increased distances to the laboratory, it may not be possible to analyse for some parameters.
You can request for your soil to be tested by calling the EPA on 1300 372 842 (select option 8). EPA will test your soil and provide a report to property owners, with broader results provided to councils to inform their clean-up efforts.
If you would like a PDF version of this information, download floodwater soil testing factsheet (PDF, 476KB)
Flood-affected residents can request soil testing at their property by phoning EPA on 1300 372 842 (select option 8)
Waste disposal after a flood
Be cautious when assessing and working with flood-impacted property and waste. Floods can cause harmful materials, such as asbestos, to shift or react.
EPA is supporting local government and clean-up operators in ensuring the right waste goes to the right places.
Sandbags are used to prevent floodwater from entering homes and other buildings. By blocking the water flow, both the bag and the sand can become contaminated with sewage, pathogens and chemicals from the floodwater.
If you can see that sandbags are contaminated with oil, faecal matter, or you suspect them to be contaminated, you should dispose of them at a landfill that accepts flood-affected waste.
If sandbags have not come into contact with floodwaters then local government can decide to reuse the bags and sand, given they are unlikely to be contaminated.
For sandbags that have come into contact with floodwaters, they are likely to be contaminated and may pose a health risk. Our advice is as follows:
- local government can choose to reuse the sand however, they must satisfy themselves that the sand does not pose a health risk or environmental risk for the intended use
- local government / Emergency Services can retain the sandbags and sand at depots for use in future emergency incidents
- the flood affected sandbags can be transported to landfill for disposal.
EPA recommends that flood affected sandbags not be used in gardens, playground areas or places where people may come into contact with them due to the health risk.
Always wear gloves when handling used sandbags and other flood-related waste
Managing farm green waste and waste crops from floods
Following flooding, you may have crops that are no longer viable or green wastes on your property. EPA encourages on-farm management of these wastes where practical.
If you are unable to manage wastes on-farm. You should dispose of waste to a licenced landfill. You can contact your local council for more information about acceptable waste facilities.
The Victorian Government has introduced landfill levy exemptions, and gate fee waivers for flood waste. This is to ease community hardship in flood affected municipalities.
EPA understands that these options may not be practical. Burning of trees, plants, and stubble may be appropriate if you manage the impacts.
Smoke can impact air quality and human health. For support, read our Farm Waste Management guidelines.
For more information on how to check, apply and notify of burning activities, visit Fire Permits.
For technical support on grazing, and pasture land recovery, visit Flood and storm financial advice and support.
Other waste disposal
Use an appropriate licenced landfill to dispose of:
- broken fencing
- spoiled stock feed
- household furniture damaged by floodwaters.
- damaged building materials containing asbestos or treated timber (ensure it goes to a landfill licenced to take that type of waste).
In an emergency, EPA can authorise discharges, emissions, storage, treatment, disposal and handling of waste.
Disposing asbestos waste after a flood
Be cautious when assessing and working with flood-impacted property and waste. Floods can cause harmful materials, such as asbestos, to shift or become exposed.
Asbestos can be found in some fibre cement sheeting and pipes, vinyl floor tiles, electrical parts and roof materials. It is not always possible to tell if a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it.
If you are disposing of flood-related waste and if you are in any doubt whether it might contain asbestos (or any other harmful material):
- Do not disturb the material
- Take reasonable step to prevent others from disturbing the material.
For help, please read our asbestos transport and disposal guidance (PDF).
Transporting domestic asbestos
Prior to transporting, you must package domestic asbestos in the right way. You must only dispose of asbestos at landfills licensed to accept asbestos.
Asbestos Victoria has an asbestos identification tool
The safest way to clear asbestos from a property
We recommend you use a licensed asbestos removalist to perform the clean-up work. They know how to remove and dispose of asbestos safely, without risk to you and your neighbours.
If you are using a contractor to remove asbestos, they must be licensed by WorkSafe Victoria. Their website has a list of licensed asbestos removalists or you can search online.
If you’re considering doing the clean-up yourself, you should follow guidelines available for homeowners at Asbestos Victoria.
It’s important that you take precautions to avoid risk to your health, and that of your family and neighbours. If potentially or suspected asbestos materials must be moved and are not already wet, they should be wetted down to prevent dust. Personal protective equipment (dust mask, gloves and coveralls) should be worn.
For more information
- Go to asbestos.vic.gov.au, a collaborative website involving EPA Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services, and WorkSafe Victoria.
To protect your health, assume all floodwaters are contaminated. Wear personal protective equipment, such as a mask and gloves and always wash your hands thoroughly after participating in flood clean-up activities.
Transporting domestic asbestos
Prior to transporting, you must package domestic asbestos in the right way. You must only dispose of asbestos at landfills licensed to accept asbestos or call us on 1300 372 842 for more information on where you can take your asbestos waste for disposal. Always contact the facility before visiting to ensure it is operating.
For more information
- Read our guidance for the community: how to safely remove and dispose of asbestos from your home
- Read our guidance for industry: how to remove, transport and store asbestos the right way
- Learn about the Victorian government's waste levy waiver to help clean up after October 2022's flood.
What is asbestos?
The term asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring minerals found in rock. White, blue and brown asbestos were all mined in Australia until 1983. Asbestos was used widely in industrial and commercial applications from the late 1800s. Uses included asbestos cement (AC) building materials, roofing tiles, fire blankets, and brake linings and pads for motor vehicles.
Asbestos cement was commonly used in the construction of residential buildings from the 1940s – houses built before 1990 are likely to have some asbestos cement products.
Health risks of asbestos
Asbestos only poses a risk to health when asbestos fibres are inhaled as dust. Asbestos cement materials that are in good condition don’t pose a health risk, because the asbestos fibres are bound together. If the material is damaged or crumbling, or has been disturbed by cutting, drilling or sawing, fibres may be released into the air and pose a health risk.
Inhalation is the main way asbestos fibres can enter the body. When the fibres are inhaled, they can remain deep in the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation. Asbestos exposure can increase the risk of some forms of cancer in humans.
We are all exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe every day. However, most people do not become ill from this exposure, because the levels of asbestos present in the environment are very low. Whether a person goes on to develop an asbestos-related disease depends on a range of factors; for example, the level and duration of exposure, length of time since first exposure, the fibre type, and concurrent exposure to tobacco smoke and other carcinogens.
More information about the health risks of asbestos is available at Asbestos Victoria
Download the factsheet
You can download a PDF version of this information clearing asbestos waste after a flood factsheet (PDF).
Managing flood-impacted septic systems
Managing flood-affected septic systems
Onsite wastewater management systems (commonly known as septic tanks) are used on residential, community and business premises.
If your property has been affected by floodwater, a licensed plumber or service technician should assess your septic system for safety and function.
If you use a damaged system, there’s a risk that sewage could back up into your house or garden. This could cause a human health and pollution risk.
Parts of the system which may be damaged include:
- shallow PVC pipes, which may be blocked
- plastic tanks and sumps (concrete tanks are less likely to be damaged, but should still be inspected)
- disposal/irrigation system and pipework
- pumps and other equipment with electrical components.
If you need to replace your system, you can find information on our website about regulations and approval process.
Your local council issues permits to install or alter a septic system. They will be able to advise you on the process to apply for a permit.
Managing residual floodwaters
Under the Environment Protection Act 2017, all Victorians have a General Environmental Duty (GED), to minimise harm to the environment and human health, so far as reasonably practicable.
Download the factsheet (PDF) or keep reading for advice on how to manage residual floodwaters.
Before pumping floodwaters
Always assess the risk to human health and the environment when deciding how you will manage your residual floodwater.
Residual floodwater is a type of waste. In Victoria, everyone has a duty (GED) to ensure their waste goes to the right place, to avoid the risk of environmental damage.
Step 1: assess the risk of contamination
The environmental risks of pumping floodwaters vary. The level of risk depends on the nature and extent of any water contamination, and where the residual water will be deposited.
Some common disposal methods include leaving the residual water to evaporate naturally, depositing it into a waterway, or pumping it over a grassed area. If you are unsure of the best floodwater disposal method, please contact EPA on 1300 372 842.
While water clarity can be an indicator of water quality, it is not a reliable way to assess the contamination risk. Many chemicals and pathogens are invisible to the eye.
Do not pump residual water onto public lands if:
- the water looks contaminated or has an odour
- the water is likely to contain runoff from urban or intensive agriculture environments
- the water is likely to contain dairy pond effluent, or runoff from stock feedlots or holding yards
These types of floodwaters may present a higher risk of harm. Call the EPA for specific advice on 1300 372 842 (24 hours).
Other factors to help you assess the level of risk
- While water clarity can be an indicator of water quality, it is not a reliable method because many chemicals and pathogens are invisible to the eye.
- The longer floodwaters remain, the poorer the water quality is likely to be. This is because, as floodwaters evaporate, the remaining water will have a higher concentration of contaminants.
- Before pumping into a waterway, first consider the users downstream. Are people boating, swimming or fishing in the water? Will livestock be drinking the water? If so, consider alternative disposal methods such as pumping the floodwater to grassed areas.
- The risk of pumping residual floodwaters into waterways is lower when the receiving waters has a higher flow of water (compared to the volume you are pumping).
- Floodwaters that have come into contact with intensive agriculture pose a higher risk of harm to human health and the environment, and should not be pumped onto public land or waterways.
Floodwaters that are likely to contain dead livestock, dairy pond effluent, or runoff from feedlots or holding yards pose a higher risk of harm. Seek specific advice from EPA on managing these floodwaters.
Step 2: seek permission
If you have determined that the risk of contamination is low, the next step is to plan where to move your water.
- If you want to pump the water into a waterway or onto public land you need the approval of the waterway or land manager. They may need to test the water first. If you are unsure who manages the area, get in touch with your local council.
- If you plan to move your residual water onto (or across) private land, contact the landholder for their approval.
Step 3: monitor the pumping process
- When pumping begins, conduct a visual check of the water in the receiving environment. If there is a visible plume, reduce the pumping rate.
- Assume all floodwaters are contaminated. Do not inhale any spray/mist during the pumping process.
- If you notice any changes to the receiving environment, stop pumping and contact the EPA immediately
If you notice fish deaths, or any changes to the receiving land or water (such as discolouration), stop pumping immediately and contact EPA for advice on 1300 372 84. Our contact centre is open 24 hours.
Managing dairy waste and stock after a flood
Pollutants from dairy farm effluents (liquid waste and sewage) can wash into waterways after rainfall.
Before the rainy season or a known heavy rain event, try to make sure your effluent ponds have enough storage for increased capacity. While these will be diluted, they can still cause impacts to human and environmental health due to contamination and excess nutrients in waterways. As soon as safely possible, check pumps and effluent ponds to ensure they still function effectively.
The Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) provides information on energy safety during floods.
Heavy rainfall and flooding can also cause power outages resulting in large amounts of spoiled milk. Agriculture Victoria has information on emergency disposal of milk.
Floods may result in large numbers of animal carcasses needing disposal. Where possible, disposal to landfill is your first and best option for dead stock.
In areas or situations where dead stock cannot be moved to a landfill, limited numbers (less than 500 sheep or 150 cattle on the farm) can be composted or buried onsite. Burial sites should be carefully chosen, to protect your groundwater, and surface waters from contamination, as well as protecting yourself and your neighbours and other surviving animals from disease spread, odour and possible health hazards.
Agriculture Victoria has more information on:
For intensive animal industries, such as feedlots, piggeries, broiler and egg farms, stock must not be buried on the property without EPA approval. Approval from EPA is required for more than 500 sheep or 150 cattle on the farm. Burning of dead stock should be avoided unless it is required for disease control, or as a last resort if a burial site is not available. In case of hardship and emergency situations, these waste materials need to be managed urgently within the community to minimise environmental and health risks.
Fish deaths from floods
Heavy rains and flood events can wash large amounts of organic matter, such as leaves and wood, from the forest floor and floodplain into waterways. This can cause water to turn a dark colour. This is often referred to as blackwater. It can cause short-term harm, such as fish deaths. Bushfires and recreational water quality (publication 1817) has more information about blackwater.
You can report fish deaths to EPA on 1300 372 842. We are available 24 hours. Interim response guide – Fish death events (publication 1793) has more information about EPA’s role in responding to fish deaths.
Resources to help you manage flood waste
If you are in immediate danger, dial 000. If you are not in immediate danger, but you require immediate relief assistance, call Emergency Recovery Victoria's hotline on 1800 560 760
Download our factsheets
Flood safety and clean up
- Flood safety and clean up factsheet - English, (PDF, 470KB)
- Arabic (PDF, 470KB)
- Chinese Simplified (PDF, 470KB)
- Italian (PDF, 470KB)
Pollution and contamination from flood water
- Pollution and contamination factsheet - English, (PDF, 476KB)
- Arabic (PDF, 476KB)
- Chinese Simplified (PDF, 476KB)
- Italian (PDF, 476KB)
Links to the latest Victorian flood information
- Current emergency incidents from Emergency Recovery Victoria
- The latest flood warnings and alerts from Bureau of Meteorology
- Flood relief and recovery advice from Emergency Recovery Victoria
- Advice on where to get help in an emergency
Guidance for managing the impact of floods
- Download our flood safety and clean up factsheet (PDF, 470KB)
- Emergency Recovery Victoria has guidance on flood recovery or you can call their flood recovery hotline on 1800 560 760
- Agriculture Victoria provides guidance on the emergency management of floods
- Department of Health provides advice on managing health hazards from floods
- Environment Protection Authority (EPA) provides guidance on managing waste after a flood
- Worksafe Australia has released advice to beware of hidden hazards in the workplace during a flood clean-up
For emergency waste management information, call EPA's contact centre on 1300 372 842
General information about heavy rainfall events
- Local Flood Guides from the Victorian State Emergency Service helps you better understand your flood risk, how flood warnings work and how to prepare yourself, your home or your business.
- EPA provides information about the impact of heavy rainfall events on waterways, wastewater treatment plants, stormwater and sewerage systems.
- Department of Health has a range of material on private wells sources, septic tanks, treating swimming pools, returning home safely and animal and insects related hazards.
- Better Health Channel has created flood factsheets and advice on what to do in an emergency