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Healthcare waste from COVID threatens environment – WHO

By Nneka Nwogwugwu

The World Health Organisation chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the recent Global analysis of healthcare waste is a reminder that although the pandemic is the most severe health crisis in a century, it is connected with many other challenges that countries face.

The estimates are based on the approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was procured between March 2020 and November 2021 and shipped through a joint UN emergency initiative. Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste.

For the agency, this is just an initial indication of the scale of the problem. It does not consider any of the COVID-19 commodities procured outside of the initiative, nor waste generated by the public, like disposable masks.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Ghebreyesus said the analysis points out that over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) – and 731,000 litres of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool) – have been shipped.

At the same time, over 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally producing 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles, and safety boxes. 

As the UN and countries grappled with the immediate task of securing and quality-assuring supplies of PPE, less attention and resources were devoted to the safe and sustainable management of this waste. 

For the Executive Director of WHO s Health Emergencies Programme, Dr Michael Ryan, this type of protection is vital, “but it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.” 

This means having effective management systems in place, including guidance for health workers on what to do.

30 percent of healthcare facilities (60 per cent in the least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional waste.

This can expose health workers to needle injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, said WHO. Communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites can be impacted by contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality, or disease carrying pests. 

The Director for Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO, Maria Neira, believes the pandemic has forced the world to reckon with this problem.

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