Medical Waste and the Environment

By Ian Teñido

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LB MedWaste

In my previous writings on environmental issues, I had never mentioned about medical waste even when it seems to be a huge environmental issue of concern for many countries and regions in the world. Just what is Medical Waste? According to the World Health Organization *, “Medical waste is generated by health care activities includes a broad range of materials, from used needles and syringes to soiled dressings, body parts, diagnostic samples, blood, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and radioactive material.” Furthermore, the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1998, (USEPA, 2016) categorizes medical waste into various classes as follows:

Infectious Waste

This is medical waste which has the potential of causing infections in humans and animals when they come in contact with it. This includes animal or human tissue as well as other body parts, blood-soaked bandages, discarded surgical gloves, cultures, stocks, or swabs to inoculate cultures. This category of waste can also be referred to as pathological waste; normally containing pathogens.

Hazardous Waste

This is medical waste that affects humans in non-infectious ways. This class of waste meets the federal guidelines for hazardous substances; which majority of medical chemicals are. They include sharp objects like needles and knives that are used in surgery. Equally, chemicals such as old drugs and chemotherapy agents are to a greater extent hazardous.

Radioactive Waste

This kind of waste is generated from nuclear medicine treatments, cancer therapies and medical equipment that uses radioactive isotopes. At the same time, any pathological waste that is contaminated with radioactive materials also falls under this category.

General Waste

This is the type of waste which makes up nearly 85% of all waste generated in medical facilities. This waste is not different from the general household waste. They include plastic, paper, liquids among other materials that do not fit into the previous categories.

The Nexus between Medical Waste and the Environment

Research points to the fact that the effects of medical waste on human health and the environment at large are monumental. The effect of medical waste is immediately felt when humans come into contact with it especially those that fall under the three first categories of infectious, hazardous and radioactive. If such medical waste is dumped near wildlife refuges such as lakes, parks and other natural habitats, the ripple effect of the impact is inescapable. The whole populations of wildlife could be wiped out or a single village in which the waste is dumped can be wiped out just like that in an instant.

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Red Bag Waste Poster. The information on this poster is specific to California & may not be applicable to all states. (Photograph courtesy of California Integrated Waste Management Board, Sacramento, CA).

Groundwater is normally the number one victim of medical waste; whether it affects humans immediately or not. Medical waste that has not been treated properly finds its way to underground reservoirs through percolation and erosion downstream; this leaves the water contaminated. The same water is ingested by humans or animals. At the same time, the chemicals that sip through the ground might change the chemical composition of soil thus affecting the normal plant and/or vegetation life in the landfill area.

The effects of medical waste on the environment have a manifold effect, no matter how one chooses to look at it. Proper treatment and disposal of medical waste is thus a major environmental problem given the increased rates of medical services and the increasing human population around the world. It should be checked and contained before it wreaks havoc on the environment and human health in general.


Reference

World Health Organization (2018). Health-care waste. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/topics/medical_waste/en/.

USEPA (2016). Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. Retrieved from https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/medical/web/html/tracking.html.

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