Medical Waste: A Threat to the Environment.

According to the Times of India, India generates about 550.9 tonnes of medical waste per day! This number is growing at a rate of 7% and thus, by 2022, we will be producing 775.5 tonnes of medical waste daily. It is hard to fathom how big that quantity is. Currently, most hospitals and clinics dispose off medical waste like all other waste- by throwing it in the trashcan. This ultimately ends up in the already-overflowing landfills and remains undecayed for several hundred years. Moreover, the increase in the number of single-use masks, PPE kits, and testing kits due to the Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated this problem.

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.

Improper segregation of biomedical waste and different medical waste streams from the point of origin can trigger a domino-like effect on the environment that incurs dangers to people, animals, or soil and water sources.

Improper segregation and disposal of biomedical waste has the potential to contaminate groundwater sources, which in turn may infect humans and animals alike. From a hospital’s waste and storage receptacles to landfills, biomedical waste needs to be properly contained to keep it away from birds, rodents, and stray animals (as well as humans). This enhances packaging and labelling of contaminants and helps prevent the spread of illness through human and animal populations – by air, land, or water.

If not properly contained, segregated, and incinerated through on-site or off-site incineration, environmental hazards associated with improper healthcare waste management can contaminate the air we breathe through dangerous airborne particles. Radioactive particles produced with diagnostic technologies has the potential to reach a landfill or other areas of the environment, especially air. Air pollutants disseminated over huge areas of inhabited land have the potential to trigger a number of illnesses.

In fact, contact with improperly disposed of biomedical wastes can contribute to lung infections, parasitic infections, skin infections, spread of viral illnesses such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, Bacteraemia, Cholera, and Tuberculosis. Thus, this issue is not just hazardous for the environment, but for humans too.

But there is a way forward. The management of health-care waste requires increased attention and diligence to avoid adverse health outcomes associated with poor practice, including exposure to infectious agents and toxic substances.

Key elements in improving health-care waste management are:

  • promoting practices that reduce the volume of wastes generated and ensure proposer waste segregation;
  • developing strategies and systems along with strong oversight and regulation to incrementally improve waste segregation, destruction and disposal practices with the ultimate aim of meeting national and international standards;
  • where feasible, favouring the safe and environmentally sound treatment of hazardous health care wastes (e.g., by autoclaving, microwaving, steam treatment integrated with internal mixing, and chemical treatment) over medical waste incineration;
  • building a comprehensive system, addressing responsibilities, resource allocation, handling and disposal. This is a long-term process, sustained by gradual improvements;
  • raising awareness of the risks related to health-care waste, and of safe practices; and
  • selecting safe and environmentally-friendly management options, to protect people from hazards when collecting, handling, storing, transporting, treating or disposing of waste.

Government commitment and support is needed for universal, long-term improvement, although immediate action can be taken locally. Apart from the government, citizens must also cooperate by recycling medical waste as much as possible and by not using disposable syringes and other medical equipment. Indeed, environmental issues are not just the responsibility of the government, but of each and every citizen as well.

Submitted by Aarushi Arora