WHO: COVID-19 hospital waste presents health threat

pharmafile | February 1, 2022 | News story | Manufacturing and Production  

The vast amount of waste produced in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic poses a threat to human and environmental health, warns WHO in a report. Discarded syringes, used test kits and old vaccine bottles have created tens of thousands of tonnes of medical waste, and has put a huge strain on healthcare waste management systems.

A portion of the material could still be infectious, as coronavirus can survive on surfaces. The material additionally has the potential to expose health workers to burns, needle-stick injuries, and other pathogens.

The waste exposes “a dire need to improve waste management practices,” WHO shared. The report examined the 1.5 billion units, which makes up around 87,000 tonnes, of PPE accumulated between March 2020 and November 2021 which was shipped out to countries via the United Nations system. This number presents a fraction of the global total. WHO has stated that the majority of this equipment has likely ended up as waste.

Communities close to poorly-managed landfills may also be affected through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality, or disease-carrying pests. Even before the pandemic, roughly one third of healthcare facilities were not equipped to handle existing waste loads, WHO said. This number was as high as 60% in poor countries. Over 140 million test kits have been shipped, with the potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of mainly plastic, non-infectious waste and 731,000 litres of chemical waste. Approximately 97 percent of plastic waste from tests is incinerated, the report said.

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE. But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan.

The first eight billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally produced 144,000 tonnes of additional waste such as syringes, needles and safety boxes.

Practical solutions recommended by WHO included using PPE more rationally, using less packaging, developing reusable PPE and PPE made with biodegradable materials, investing in non-burn waste treatment technology, and centralising waste management.

Ana Ovey

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