Huge volumes of Covid-19 hospital waste threaten health: WHO

Used personal protective equipment PPE and gloves are seen in a bin in Austria on Nov 17, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Vaccines have produced an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of glass vials, syringes, needles, and safety boxes. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (REUTERS) - Discarded syringes, used test kits and old vaccine bottles from the Covid-19 pandemic have piled up to create tens of thousands of tonnes of medical waste, threatening human health and the environment, a World Health Organisation report said on Tuesday (Feb 1).

The material, a portion of which could be infectious since the coronavirus can survive on surfaces, potentially exposes health workers to burns, needle-stick injuries and disease-causing germs, the report said.

Communities close to poorly-managed landfills can also be affected through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality or disease-carrying pests, it added.

The report calls for reform and investment, including through a reduction in the use of packaging that has caused a rush for plastic and the use of protective gear made from reusable and recyclable materials.

It estimates that some 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE), or the equivalent of the weight of several hundred blue whales, has been ordered via a UN portal up until Nov 2021, most of which is thought to have ended up as waste.

The report also mentions some 140 million test kits with the potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of mostly plastic trash and enough chemical waste to fill one-third of an Olympic swimming pool.

In addition, it estimates that some eight billion vaccine doses administered globally have produced an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of glass vials, syringes, needles, and safety boxes.

The WHO report did not name specific examples of where the most egregious build-ups occurred, but referred to challenges such as limited official waste treatment and disposal in rural India, as well as large volumes of faecal sludge from quarantine facilities in Madagascar.

Even before the pandemic, around a third of healthcare facilities were not equipped to handle existing waste loads, the WHO said.

That was as high as 60 per cent in poor countries, it said.

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