Bins and needles

Bins and needles

The disposal of medical waste is not an easy, simple or cheap process. DANIELLE DU TOIT investigates why many companies have resorted to illegal dumping and what impact this has on our environment and our health.

It reads like something out of a horror film – the discovery of 20 tonnes of medical waste buried at an unused gold mine. Human tissue, tonsils, placenta, the odd appendix or two, needles, blades, dirty equipment, vials, syringes, drips, bloody bandages, gas cylinders and chemicals … all improperly disposed of.

Everyone has a constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations. To make sure these rights are upheld, there are numerous legislated and other measures intended to prevent pollution and ecological degradation, promote conservation and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources – in the form of the National Environmental Management Waste (NEMW) Act.

“Not harmful” … 20 tonnes of used needles and diseased human tissue seems to be the quintessential definition of harmful.

The amount of medical waste generated in South Africa increases by about 8 000 tonnes a year. The most recent figures – for 2007, as presented during a briefing by Department of Environmental Affairs acting CEO Kelello Ntoampe – showed that waste had increased from 31 000 tonnes to 42 000 tonnes in two years. Either there aren’t enough facilities available to dispose of medical waste, or it has become too expensive and this is forcing even the biggest companies to turn to illegal dumping. 

Gauteng authorities have had no choice but to make use of a so-called “Highly Hazardous” landfill. There are only two such landfills in the country due to their design being extremely complicated, with stoppage layers, absorption layers and pollution mitigation measures all being necessary. In 2009, the cleaning up of illegal sites cost R53 million. Some 18 600 tonnes of contaminated soil had to be transported to the Highly Hazardous landfill.

Non compliance and implementation
All medical waste is by law required to be incinerated. Incineration reduces the solid mass of waste by 80 to 85 percent, depending on composition – significantly reducing the amount of solid mass needing to be disposed of.

The recent spate of illegal dumping in Gauteng was speculated to be a direct result of the shutdown of Aid Safe Waste, a medical waste incinerator in Gauteng.

The closure of this, the largest incinerator site in Johannesburg, was effected when a team of investigators from the Environmental Management Inspectorate found evidence of storm water drain mismanagement. Contaminated fluids were being allowed to leak back into the soil, potentially polluting the ground water.

The facility was also taking on more waste than its governed capacity, and failure to comply with pre-determined incinerator feed rates caused over loading and subsequent emissions of thick, black smoke.

Residents in the area had been voicing their concerns about Aid Safe Waste for weeks before the facility was shut down. Complaints about bad smells led investigators to the discovery of decomposing human tissue and fluids. Not ideal for anyone.

Gauteng will now implement a rigorous medical waste management regime to address the potential hazards arising from medical waste mismanagement.

The plan, which is to be implemented in steps, includes processes such as promoting waste minimisation through the reuse and recycling of materials, constant enforcement and monitoring of waste generators for compliance, ensuring that responsibilities are being met, registering appropriate service providers – and, most importantly – providing facilities and services for the collection, removal, treatment and disposal of medical waste.

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