According to a report published by the World Health Organization in February, tens of thousands of tons of additional medical waste from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic put “great pressure” on healthcare waste management systems around the world, threatening human health and environmental and exposing an urgent need to improve waste management practices.

After more than 430 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, the pandemic has generated vast amounts of medical waste in the form of test kits, gloves, masks, syringes and other products that people in clinics and hospitals use it once then throw it in according to protocols, leaving room for an environmental crisis in addition to a public health crisis.

According to WHO projections, 87,000 tons of personal protective equipment and other medical products were shipped to countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh between March 2020 and November 2021. The estimate of the WHO only considers shipments delivered by the United Nations. and its partner groups, not huge amounts of material that countries obtain from other sources, according to American Scientist. The WHO has also indicated that it does not take into account waste generated by the public, including disposable medical masks.

The WHO found the problem to be global, but particularly extreme in poorer countries where much of the waste is simply burned in the open and where incinerators lack pollution controls. Most products should have ended up as waste, which was a big problem before the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic has only made the problem worse as many healthcare facilities are unable to manage waste safely.

More than 140 million test kits, likely to generate 2,600 tons of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 liters of chemical waste, equivalent to a third of an Olympic swimming pool, have been sent, while more than 8 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, generating 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes, the WHO said.

Less attention and resources have been devoted to the safe and sustainable management of COVID-19-related healthcare waste during the pandemic, the WHO wrote, as the UN and countries worked to secure PPE supply.

“Providing health workers with the right PPE is absolutely vital,” said Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, in a statement. “But it’s also vital to make sure it can be used safely without impacting the environment.”

Currently, 30% of healthcare facilities (60% in least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional burden of COVID-19, the WHO said. This potentially exposes health workers to needlestick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, while impacting communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites. by air contaminated by burning waste, poor water quality or disease-carrying pests.

“COVID-19 has forced the world to consider gaps and overlooked aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and dispose of our healthcare resources, from cradle to grave,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO, said in a statement.

“A significant change at all levels, from the global level to the hospital, in the way we manage the flow of medical waste is a fundamental requirement of climate-smart healthcare systems, to which many countries have committed themselves. committed at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, and, of course, a healthy recovery from COVID-19 and preparedness for other health emergencies in the future,” Neira continued.

Recommendations for integrating better, safer, and more environmentally sustainable waste management practices into the current COVID-19 response and future pandemic preparedness efforts include the use of environmentally friendly packaging and shipping environmental, safe and reusable PPE (such as gloves and medical masks), recyclable or biodegradable materials; investment in non-incinerable waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralized processing and investment in the recycling sector to ensure materials, such as plastics, can have a second life, the WHO said.

The waste challenge of COVID-19 and the growing urgency to address environmental sustainability provide an opportunity to strengthen systems to safely and sustainably reduce and manage healthcare waste, WHO reported. Methods to address this challenge include strong national policies and regulations, regular monitoring and reporting and increased accountability, support for behavior change and workforce development, and increased budgets and financing.

“A systemic change in the way healthcare manages its waste would include more thorough and systematic review and better procurement practices,” said Dr Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Healthcare Waste Task Force. , International Solid Waste Association, in a statement.

“There is a growing appreciation that investments in health need to consider environmental and climate implications, as well as greater awareness of the co-benefits of action,” Woolridge continued. “For example, the safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce the environmental damage caused by waste, but will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection prevention. by changing behavior.

The analysis comes at a time when the healthcare sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste sent to landfill – in part due to widespread concern over the proliferation of plastic waste and its impacts on water, food systems and human health and ecosystems, the WHO said.

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