Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Health Warning: Beware of hazardous medical waste

Razen Manandhar

The "thrilling" story about an amputated limb found in the busy street of Bagbazaar is quite old. We have also read news stories about a government-owned maternity hospital throwing foetuses and other parts just next to the hospital compound. We read and soon forget such stories, as we have to get on with our busy lives.

But whether we think about it or not, the most aware, intelligent and comfortable citizens of the capital city, have to realise that they are living on a time bomb planted by the health organisations with its high-sounding slogans of quality health service. Any time, a plague can threaten the lives of thousands in this city because of the infectious waste the hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and medicine shops, throw out carelessly on the street every day.

One can hardly believe that in this so-called modern city, health institutions dump over 1,000 kilogrammes of deadly hazardous waste directly or indirectly on the streets every day.

We, the educated people of the valley, it seems know only one way of being health—conscious—chuck all the garbage out of our territory. Our conscience never bothers us that the garbage will not let us live in peace unless it is treated or managed properly. Staying with the garbage problem in the capital has become as common as "dalbhat". We have a decade-long experience in this field.

Medical waste—that is bio-medical waste, hospital waste, clinical waste, pathological waste, infectious waste, pharmaceutical waste, geno-toxic waste, chemical waste and even radioactive waste–are thousand times more dangerous to public health than plastic bags, paper boxes and rotten vegetables. In general, waste of the organic matters decompose while the non-organic ones remain intact.

But the case is quite different with medical waste. Since they are either infected with various bacteria and viruses, they can generate pests that can be harmful to our lives.

Around one-and-half million people from the valley and perhaps the same number from other districts, undergo treatment in the city’s numerous medical establishments. Do we have any idea where does the human tissues, organs, body fluids, other wastes which may transmit viral, fungal, bacterial or parasitic diseases, expired or unused drugs, gaseous chemicals, etc. go? They remain in the valley itself, on or under the ground, and their regenerated forms are flying in the air we breathe. We can’t run away from them. And we are not ostriches to bury our heads.

According to a research done last year by Environment and Public Health Organisation, over 60 hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, etc. produce 1,312 kg of such infectious and clinical wastes in the Kathmandu Valley. But only a few of these places have any equipment to treat the waste. What is happening is that many of the medical establishments mix hazardous waste with the general waste, which, according to experts, multiplies the danger by hundreds of times, because after such waste gets mixed with the general garbage pile, all the pile turns dangerous. Most of the hospitals and nursing homes usually dispose their waste on the roadside containers, and at times, burn and bury them in their institution premises.

This is what the doctors, and other health workers, whom we consider highly health- conscious and masters of health education, are leaving behind. What is there to expect from these people who are not serious about the waste they are responsible for produce?

But the blame lies not just on the health professionals. There are various laws concerning industry, health services and environment. They all say that the institutions must manage the waste that they produce. But no action has yet been taken against those who do not abide by the rules.

What can be done? Recommendations again: The government must amend its laws and punish the wrongdoers; make hospital management, doctors and cleaners aware, and immediately establish a centralised incinerator or get the hospitals and nursing homes to establish their own plants to manage such wastes. And of course, the citizens have a role to play. Have you ever heard of any citizen or civic organisation raising a voice against this deadly mismanagement? I suppose, no. Now is the time, before it gets too late.
[Kathmandu Wednesday February 13, 2002 Falgun 01, 2058.]