New Delhi: “Tens of thousands of tonnes of extra medical waste from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous strain on health care waste management systems around the world, threatening human and environmental health and exposing a dire need to improve waste management practices,” according to a new WHO report.
‘The WHO Global analysis of health care waste in the context of COVID-19: status, impacts and recommendations’ bases its estimates on the approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was procured between March 2020- November 2021 and shipped to support countries’ urgent COVID-19 response needs through a joint UN emergency initiative.
Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste, the report concludes.
Dr. Margaret Montgomery, WHO’s WASH Technical Officer explains how medical waste can impact human health and what can be done to reduce it.
Medical waste is all the waste that results from vaccinations, from testing for COVID-19, as well as for caring for patients in health care facilities and homes. So this is vaccine needles, vials, testing reagents, testing swabs, as well as all the personal protective equipment that health workers are using, such as masks and aprons, as well as carers and the patients themselves. In terms of the scale, it’s massive. We’ve all seen discarded masks on the streets, and in 2020 alone, 4.5 trillion additional disposable masks were thrown away by the public, resulting in 6 million extra tons of waste, Dr Montgomery explains.
She further says notes WHO’s analysis, recorded keeping the extra waste loads at healthcare facilities in account, that the medical waste was increased by 3 to 4 times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In facilities that didn’t segregate their health care waste, the increase was 10 times greater, which really shows that segregation is very important because only 20 per cent of health care waste is infectious and hazardous and requires extra care and treatment. At the same time, we know that 1 ONE in three 3 care facilities globally before the pandemic lacked ways to safely segregate and treat waste.
Dr Montgomery reiterates that medical waste is not a new problem. She says that there are many adverse impacts from unsafely managed and treated health care waste, ‘needle-stick injuries cause many hepatitis B and C infections every year’. Talking about other health concerns related to healthcare waste, she added,
There’s also other infectious pathogens that are spread through bandages and other infectious waste, some of which are not treatable through existing antimicrobials. There are also all the dangers that are involved with burning waste and in particular plastic can lead to the release of dioxins and pure ends, which are carcinogenic and can really harm not only those working in health care facilities, but those vulnerable communities that surround where health care waste is being burned. Lastly, there’s a lot we don’t know about plastics and the environment, and increasingly we’re finding that microplastics are showing up in our waterways and our food systems.
As individuals, to reduce medical waste, Dr Montgomery says that there are three things that can be done in our everyday life.
The first is to become aware and take it as your personal responsibility to understand the amount of waste you’re generating and how you can reduce those volumes to begin with. So, for example, gloves are not needed in many situations. So reducing things that aren’t needed can reduce volumes of waste. The second is to be a conscious consumer and actively seek high quality, reusable PPE. In places where high quality, reusable masks aren’t available and disposables are the only option, it’s also important to think about recycling these masks, and increasingly we’re finding that recycled masks are being put to use to make roads and other building materials. Lastly, the packaging, it’s really important to try to seek products that use more ecological packaging and paper-based packaging instead of plastics.
Dr Montgomery also emphasised that the government has an important role in this by creating and implementing strong health care waste policies, backed by regular budgets and financing in supporting the recycling sector.
This will help ensure that the medical waste isn’t infectious. Governments also need to be investing in high quality, locally manufactured PPE, which not only can reduce carbon emissions from transporting goods long distances, but can also help fulfil commitments that were recently made around low carbon and sustainable health systems, she added.
We can no longer afford to ignore the impact on the environment, Dr Montgomery asserts.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.