The Environmental Hazards of Medical Waste

As the world’s population continues to grow the need to provide medical care and services to these people will also continue to grow. Alongside the added pressure to make sure people are fit and healthy there will also be increasing pressure to make sure that medical items are disposed of in a manner that is both safe and healthy and environmentally-friendly. At present, the disposal and dumping of medical waste is a major issue.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines medical waste as “Waste generated by health care activities including a broad range of materials, from used needles and syringes to soiled dressings, body parts, diagnostic samples, blood, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and radioactive materials.” It estimates that 16 billion injections are administered worldwide across the globe but many of these used syringes are not disposed of correctly.

Different communities and countries are affected by different waste disposal and dumping issues. For example, some might be negatively affected by used and dirty syringes washing up on their beaches or lake shores, others might have soil contaminated due to infectious blood being incorrectly disposed of in a landfill while in others pathogens might contaminate healthy supplies of drinking water and fresh air.

Some may see it as slightly ironic that genuine efforts taken to make people healthier and to heal the sick might then result in waste created that can harm others. However, in poorer, developing countries the proper disposal of medical waste is often not considered a major priority often due to a lack of funding.

In many health care clinics and hospitals across developing countries, all medical and non-medical waste can often be mixed together and then burned in dangerous incinerators which are not hot enough or in open pits. This is harmful for the environment as it results in carbon dioxide and other poisonous toxins being released into the earth’s atmosphere which then contribute to climate change.

If not incinerated many medical waste products, such as sharps can end up in regular landfill sites and garbage dumps. Exposure to the toxins created from landfill sites and garbage dumps is bad enough but the environmental risks can often increase when medical waste is also dumped in these sites. Furthermore, if they are not properly constructed landfills can result in drinking-water sources becoming contaminated as poisonous toxins leak out of the site. Once contaminated it then often becomes more difficult, more expensive and more time-consuming to rectify.

Dumped medical waste also poses serious health concerns. Says the WHO “Poor management of health care waste potentially exposes health care workers, waste handlers, patients and the community at large to infection, toxic effects and injuries, and risks polluting the environment. It is essential that all medical waste materials are segregated at the point of generation, appropriately treated and disposed of safely.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that public and waste workers are some of the workers who potentially face a higher risk than others. It says “For example, discarded needles may expose waste workers to potential needle stick injuries and potential infection when containers break open inside garbage trucks or [when] needles are mistakenly sent to recycling facilities. Janitors and housekeepers also risk injury as loose sharps poke through plastic garbage bags. Used transit needles can transmit serious diseases, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis.”

In response to this growing problem experts recommend three main strategies which can all be applied simultaneously. The first strategy should be a concerted effort by the health profession itself, including but not just limited to clinics and hospitals, to efficiently minimise their medical waste. Minimised waste means that less waste needs to be disposed of correctly and the environmental and health concerns related to incorrect disposal are reduced.

Secondly, health professionals, policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders should work together to raise awareness around proper medical waste disposal techniques and the dangers of incorrect disposal. They can then work towards implementing and promoting effective alternative waste disposal methods which don’t result in waste products simply being incinerated or dumped into landfill sites. Credit can also be given to model clinics and hospitals in order to enable other medical professionals and sites to learn from them and hopefully change their disposal practices.

Finally, safe and environmentally-friendly waste management options should be selected in order to ensure that people directly involved with medical equipment and waste are properly protected and are not at any undue risk. This can include those who work in collecting, handling, storing, transporting, treating and/or disposing of waste.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on September 29, 2017.


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