Healthcare Wastes: How does it affect us?

by Jennifer Gough on February 20, 2014

Hi, my name is Jen Gough. I find the topic of waste and pollution very interesting in terms of the effects on the environment and public health. Because of this, I decided that writing about healthcare wastes would be an interesting approach, primarily because it is not something most would consider pollution.

 

Healthcare wastes are not a widely discussed topic. It is not something that would cross someone’s mind on a day to day basis. Although the significance of healthcare wastes on the environment, and on public health, is not well known, I have found that being aware of the effects is important.

Healthcare waste is defined as the total amount of waste from a healthcare facility. There are two types of healthcare waste, non hazardous and hazardous. Non-hazardous waste is primarily day-to-day garbage, whereas hazardous healthcare waste is waste that has come into contact with patients and could potentially transmit a disease. Hazardous healthcare wastes are considered hazardous because they are sharps (syringes), have come into contact with patients, could contain chemicals or pharmaceuticals or could potentially be radioactive. The presence of hazardous healthcare wastes poses a risk to public health and to the environment.

The majority of healthcare wastes come from healthcare facilities where treatment is provided to patients. More specifically, hazardous healthcare wastes can come from hospitals, treatment specific facilities, research laboratories and other places relating to medical research . In these settings there are certain individuals who are more at risk for contracting a disease because of a higher exposure to hazardous wastes. 75%-90% of the garbage is considered non-hazardous while 10%-25% is considered hazardous. Of this small percentage that is considered hazardous waste, sharps are considered the most dangerous. The individuals with the highest risks of coming in contact with sharps are the medical staff that treat patients, the patients themselves and facilities workers who dispose of the garbage. Sharps are syringes or other needles that are considered hazardous because they have been disposed of improperly and could result in transmitting an infection or disease. Hazardous healthcare waste is what poses the most risk to public health and the environment.

Proper sharps disposal container

Proper sharps disposal container

The improper disposal of healthcare wastes is what ultimately presents as dangerous to the public’s health because it puts the population at a greater risk for coming in contact with infections or diseases. When the syringes are improperly disposed of, there is an increased chance of individuals obtaining these needles and reusing them without proper sanitation. Reusing these needles is an immediate health risk. An estimated 23 million people contract Hepatitis B and C and contract HIV through the reuse of unsterilized needles. Knowing that people are at risk for contracting a disease due to using an unsterilized needle should result in improved methods of disposal so that the risk decreases over time.

The most common method for healthcare waste disposal is through incineration.When the waste is incinerated, toxic substances can be released which are ultimately a negative impact on human health and the environment. Human exposure to dioxins, one of the toxic substances released, can lead to the impairment of the immune, reproductive and endocrine systems. Additionally, dioxin is believed to be a human carcinogen, therefore cancer is also a risk involved with dioxin exposure. Dioxin exposure to the environment is also dangerous because it can be present in different forms. It does not biodegrade and can accumulate throughout the food chain. Dioxin can maintain a presence in the environment for an extended period of time.

While there is no way to decrease the amount of healthcare waste created, there are manners in which to improve the methods of waste disposal. By changing and improving the way healthcare wastes are disposed of, the exposure to toxic substances can be decreased. There are several ways in which to ensure that public health is not at risk, the most important being the method of incineration. To limit contamination from incineration, it is important to make sure that the waste is being burned at a very high temperature. This would be the most likely way in which to destroy contaminated materials. Another method of improving disposal would be to implement a a standardized plan so that sharps and other materials are all disposed of the same way. By doing so, medical waste disposal would be consistent.

With my research I have found that improper disposal of healthcare wastes can cause many public health risks. Although there are also environmental health risks, I believe that it is most important to acknowledge the direct and indirect risks to human health. The most direct threats are to humans who come in contact with contaminated materials, although exposure to toxic fumes from incineration can cause problems for the environment as well as the entire population. In order to improve this, it is important to understand the risks and be willing to make an effort to ensure proper medical waste disposal.

It is important to realize that healthcare waste does have an impact on our quality of life. With proper disposal, we are at a decreased risk of exposure to contaminated materials and toxic substances. With improper disposal, we continue to be exposed to materials that are hazardous to our health. Knowing this, I think it is important to acknowledge the methods in which we can improve these circumstances so that we can maintain good health.

Sources:

http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/medicalwaste/020to030.pdf

http://www.encapafrica.org/egssaa/medwaste.pdf

http://www.healthcarewaste.org/basics/definitions/

http://www.noharm.org/global/issues/waste/dioxin.php#toxicity

http://www.healthcarewaste.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/Safe-Management-of-Wastes-from-Health-Care-Activities-2.pdf

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs253/en/

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/

http://www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/ProductsandMedicalProcedures/HomeHealthandConsumer/ConsumerProducts/Sharps/ucm263240.htm


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