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Episode #65 - Medical waste

20 January 2022 | Science conversation

Summary

Are you aware of the medical waste generated during the pandemic? How does it impact your health and what can you do to reduce it? WHO’s Dr Margaret Montgomery explains in Science in 5.

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Are you aware of the medical waste generated during the pandemic? How does that impact your health? And what can you do to reduce this medical waste? Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. We are talking to Dr. Margaret Montgomery today about medical waste. Welcome, Margaret. Let's start Margaret by. Please describe for us what this medical waste is that has been generated during the pandemic.

Dr Maggie Montgomery 

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. 

In our own analysis, looking at the extra waste loads at health care facilities, we found that it increased by 3 to 4 times during this pandemic and 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% of health care waste is infectious and hazardous and requires extra care and treatment. At the same time, we know that 1 in three 3 care facilities globally before the pandemic lacked ways to safely segregate and treat waste.

And on the sub-Saharan continent, this is 2 and 3 health care facilities. So we have the combined double burden of already weak systems for waste management, coupled by the fact that health workers are extremely overburdened with increased patient loads and can't manage the existing waste, let alone extra waste. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Maggie, as you just described, medical waste is not a new problem. Talk to us, please, about the health impact, the impact on our health, as well as our planet's health of this medical waste.

Dr Maggie Montgomery

There's many adverse impacts from unsafely managed and treated health care waste, so needle-stick injuries cause many hepatitis B and C infections every year. 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's 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. These are all concerns about health care waste.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Maggie, just the scale of this problem seems so huge. What can we do as individuals to reduce this medical waste? 

Dr Maggie Montgomery

There's three main things the public can do. 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. And in particular in high income countries increasingly, we're finding that very high quality reusable masks are available, and those would be preferred. 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. And I also just want to emphasize that the government also has important role by creating and implementing strong health care waste policies that are backed by regular budgets and financing in supporting the recycling sector so all that waste that isn't infectious can be put to other uses. And lastly, in investing in high quality, locally manufactured PPE, which not only can reduce carbon emissions from transporting goods long distances, but can also help fulfill commitments that were recently made around low carbon and sustainable health systems. So in short, we can no longer afford to ignore the impact on the environment. The good news is it's possible to prevent and protect against COVID-19 and then environment, and I call on each of you to do your part.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Maggie. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.

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