Covid-19 increases hazards of biomedical waste

Pandemic to leave long-term scars on environment

Environment

March 1, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Covid-19 increases hazards of biomedical waste

Delhi’s biomedical output had risen from 25 tonnes per day in May, 2020 to 349 tonnes per day in July, 2020 (MIG Photos)

One of the facets that have resulted from the coronavirus pandemic which has gripped the globe for over 18 months now is the risk of mountains of untreated and hazardous biomedical waste, most of which is ending up in landfills or water bodies like any other waste.

Even though the world seems to have begun a pushback against the Covid-19 pandemic with the launch of intensive vaccination drives in several countries, the battle is far from won. And even when humanity conquers the virus, which it must and will, the pandemic would have left several scars behind, some of which may well stay with us for decades, if not forever.

Indeed, over the past 18 months or so, the coronavirus pandemic has left a lot of ruins in its wake. It has totally disrupted education for hundreds of millions of students globally and it has shattered the global economy to a level that was unimaginable as most nations report their worst-ever performance economically. The virus has also led to the largest mass unemployment event in human history, with various experts putting the figure of jobs lost as high as half a billion.

While many of these losses can be made up for over some time as the economy recovers and education resumes. However, there is one cost that is certain to stay with us for a very long time to come, not just years or even decades, but perhaps even thousands of years. The enormous rise in the amount of plastic and biowastes being generated around the world due to preventive measures against the pandemic, as well as due to the treatment of millions of cases Covid-19.

One of the most hazardous types of waste produced by humans, biomedical waste has for long been a major health and environmental challenge for mankind as millions of tonnes of this waste is produced every single day. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, on average, a single hospital bed produces about 500 gm of biomedical or healthcare waste every day. World Bank says that in 2017, there was an average of 2.9 hospital beds per 1000 people in the world, leading to close to 21 million beds and over 10.5 million tonnes of biomedical waste generated every day.

As with other waste, the production of waste is much more in the developed world than in the developing countries. And as with other waste generated by humanity, most of the waste produced in the rich nations turns up in poorer countries where it is either dumped in landfills, poisoning the soil and water for centuries for come, or recycled, with immense health hazards for the unprotected workers involved in recycling industries. Some of this waste is also incinerated in the developed world, causing its own environmental hazards due to the toxins released in air due to burning the waste.

If the situation of hazardous waste was near catastrophic before the outbreak of the pandemic, it has deteriorated to cataclysmic since. Though few data are available globally, most indicators and commonsense point to a significant increase in the generation of this waste ever since the pandemic broke out. There are hundreds of sources of this additional waste generation. First and foremost, millions of healthcare workers have been using PPE kits for their safety, almost all of which is disposed off every day. There are similar kits for over 100 million people who have been hospitalised for treatment as well as people – undertakers and mortuary staff – dealing with the bodies of the victims of the pandemic, which number close to 2.6 million today.

The number of hospital beds, too, shot up dramatically as most countries set up make-shift hospitals in diverse areas as stadiums, schools, open grounds or simply build new hospitals to take care of millions of new patients.

But the biomedical waste is not generated only in the healthcare industry today. It has become all-pervasive in the name of personal safety and hygiene, at least to an extent. Face masks have been mandated by governments globally and billions of these pieces have already ended up in the waste bins as have gloves and other protective garments used by people as a precautionary measure.

Another new and significant source of this waste is faceshield, which has become the new must-have gadget for travellers, notably those taking the airlines. Certainly, the number of travellers has gone down dramatically, mainly due to severe restrictions on cross-border movements of people. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the number of airline passengers fell by 60 pc in 2020, as compared to 2019. But that still means at least 1.8 billion people travelled in 2020, leaving behind at least the same number of face shields and masks as well as disposable sanitiser pouches, all of which ended up in the biomedical waste bins.

Estimates from India present a case in point. The world’s second-largest nation also has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and the fourth-highest deaths in the world. According to data submitted to the Indian Supreme Court there has been at least a doubling in the quantity of waste produced in the hospitals in India. Central Pollution Control Board told the top court in August 2020, when the pandemic was still surging across the nation, that Delhi’s biomedical output had risen from 25 tonnes per day in May to 349 tonnes per day in July, while in Mumbai, the waste generation in hospitals had risen from 12.2 tonnes a day in June to 25 tonnes a day in August.

In an update, the CPBD said that at end of October, India had generated around 33,000 tonnes of this waste since March.

According to the data, Maharashtra generated 5,367 tonnes of waste in seven months since June, followed by Kerala (3,300 tonnes), Gujarat (3,086 tonnes), Tamil Nadu (2,806 tonnes), Uttar Pradesh (2,502 tonnes), Delhi (2,471 tonnes), West Bengal (2,095 tonnes) and Karnataka (2,026 tonnes).

Though the CPCB claims that there were 198 treatment facilities for handling biomedical waste in India, the country had already been facing a severe shortage of treatment facilities for its pre-pandemic waste generation. One can only guess what happened to the amount of waste produced ever since. There have been reports of these being simply dumped in landfills for future generations to deal with.

The same picture is almost certain to have been repeated globally as there is little indication or even talk of governments or the healthcare industry rapidly adding capacity to deal with the unprecedented amounts of waste being produced now. While one can excuse the focus of the global governments and hospitals in prioritising taking care of patients and saving lives, but there is no excuse for kicking the can, full of hazards, for the future generations to inherit and deal with. Not just the future generations, the waste is also poisoning our present and the time to act is now. It would be good to see some urgency from global organisations, governments and the healthcare industry in dealing with this issue as well.

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