This opinion piece first appeared in The Conversation on 8 December 2011.
Summer is the season for all kinds of lovely outdoor activities, not the least of which is a spate of music festivals, which kicks off tomorrow with Victoria’s Meredith Music Festival. But there’s a dark side to such events and you have to take care to avoid getting ill and missing out on watching your favourite bands.
One of the great unknowns of outdoor music festivals (and life in general, really) is what the weather will be like. Summer is great for enjoying music outdoors but the best intentions of organisers can be easily overcome by sudden storms.
The result? Think rain, dirt, and then mud, applied with alcohol, public urination and belligerent stuffing of the face. All these rather common festival activities pose a threat to your health.
And a considerable proportion of the risks they generate can be attributed to behaviour in the general admission or standing room only areas facing the stages or “mosh pits” in front of your favourite line up. The front of the stage is where there’s the most crowd pressure and the greatest intensity – and this can result in crowd crushes.
But there are many more public health concerns associated with outdoor music festivals including food- and water-borne illnesses, sunburn and access to clean toilets.
Effective waste management is a particularly important issue, especially the disposal of the vast amounts of rubbish generated by festival goers. Although bins are scattered generously throughout most venues, when people are partying, their rubbish tends to end up in the mud, on gum boots or generally floating around.
This creates the perfect breeding ground for an outbreak of gastroenteritis and similar illnesses. And it’s for reasons such as these that environmental health practitioners, such as myself, invest considerable time and energy supporting event organisers to improve the public health standards at these events.
What organisers can do
I regularly attend these germ-spreading frenzies — or festivals — including the one at Glastonbury in the United Kingdom. Glastonbury attracts over 170,000 people every year, with the majority of attendees camping at the festival, and dwarfs the (approximately) 12,000 who attend Meredith.
But Glastonbury provides an insight into what can go wrong with music festivals in terms of public health. Over the ten years that I’ve been involved with maintaining that festival site, I’ve seen significant improvements in health standards but there’s still a margin for error. As much as we can tighten up waste management, for instance, we cannot predict how each individual attendee will treat the grounds.
At the other end of the spectrum, most people at music festivals eat meals from temporary food establishments and drink water from a temporary water supply. The hygiene at temporary food premises – tent, caravan or other temporary structures that are used for the preparation and sale of food – is usually of a lower standard than what can be expected of a permanent establishment. So, it’s not unusual for people to get gastrointestinal diseases.
Environmental health practitioners enforce appropriate standards, including ensuring that food handlers have adequate skills and knowledge to carry their tasks effectively at such premises. They also ensure that food vendors provide rubbish bins and ensure they’re regularly collected to reduce unsightly accumulations, odours and stop them from attracting vermin.
Generally, festival organisers should ensure there’s an adequate number of toilets – reflecting the festival’s capacity – and suitable servicing, maintenance and cleaning. This should be done regularly with chlorinated water that’s regularly sampled and monitored.
What you can do
But organisers can only do so much and can’t be everywhere at once so it’s important for festival goers to take on a little responsibility. Staying mud free may be difficult — it always seems to rain at these things – but remember, mud is a popular place for bugs that cause infections.
Shower whenever possible, it’ll not only be a friendly gesture toward other festival goers, it’ll also help your hygiene.
Don’t eat any leftovers lying around your campsite unless they’ve been locked up in a refrigerator. You’re just asking for a sore stomach if you eat indiscriminately.
Apart from not swimming in any dams around festival sites, only drinking water that has been chlorinated and suitable for drinking and actually using rubbish bins, there’s one basic thing that you can do to look after your health: clean your hands with water and sanitiser or soap after going to the toilet and before eating food. Really. This is the single most important thing that festival goers can do to reduce the chance of contracting a stomach bug and missing out on the bands they’re at there for.
Outdoor music festivals provide great experiences and don’t need to include an upset stomach. Following these simple suggestions are a great start. There are many festivals over the summer so go out, enjoy yourselves and be environmental health safe.
Cameron Earl is a lecturer in Environmental Health at La Trobe University