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The unhealthy healthcare system – a view on the treatment of medical waste

Countries and industries have been progressively setting ‘net zero’ targets, adapting legislation and activities to move towards a low-carbon future, with the goal of producing less carbon than is taken out of the atmosphere. Despite public awareness being focused on emissions, with public-oriented measures involving clean energy production and consumption, it is time to pay attention to healthcare systems and their impact on waste management.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 15% of the waste generated by health care activities is considered hazardous. Being infections, toxic or radioactive, hazardous medical waste needs to be properly managed, under penalty of presenting a risk for both human health and the environment [1].

Potential risks associated with the inappropriate processing and treatment of hazardous medical waste include [2]:

  1. The release of toxic air-borne pollutants and metals (such as lead, mercury, and cadmium) to the environment, resulting from their inadequate incineration.
  2. Soil and water pollution, resulting from the burial and random dumping on uncontrolled sites.
  3. Contamination of water sources and soil with pathogens or toxic chemicals, resulting from the poor management of wastewater and sewage sludge.
  4. Secondary disease transmission due to exposure of waste management workers, healthcare professionals, and patients to infectious agents.

In turn, waste management operations also originate environmental impacts, both in terms of collection and transport, and in the treatment itself. As an example, see how, in Portugal, the collection, treatment and waste disposal sector is, since 2012, the most expressive sector in the total hazardous waste produced in mainland Portugal, representing, in 2019, over 36% of the national hazardous waste production [3].

The impact of health care in the waste management sector was valued at USD 2.6 billion in 2019, according to Europe Medical Waste Management Market Report, and is expected to witness 6.3% CAGR from 2020 to 2026 [4].

Main factors – that are concurrently key trends for the future – include the rise in the use of disposable medical products in health care facilities, directly linked to the surge in the use of single-use or disposable products (like surgical gloves, disposable bed sheets, masks, surgical gowns, syringes, intravenous saline bags, and others) prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, that now accounts for most of the hospital waste [5].

Conversely, recycling is also expected to become a key trend in this market, as the shortage of medical supplies due to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the need for more sustainable materials and recycling of medicinal products.

All considered, the management of medical waste (including the 85% that is non-hazardous) is a growing market that still requires special attention from both global leaders and health sector stakeholders.

Albeit it is important, from a preventive perspective, to limit the production of waste (and thus reduce the operations necessary for its management), priority should be given to raising awareness, notably among developing countries.

Inadequate awareness about the health and environmental hazards related to medical waste is leading to an improper segregation of waste, and absence of necessary treatment operations, directly hindering the growth of the waste management market.


1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/health-care-waste

2. https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-4032.pdf

3. https://rea.apambiente.pt/content/hazardous-waste?language=en

4. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20211012005778/en/Medical-Waste-Management-Global-Market-Report-2021-COVID-19-Implications-and-Growth-to-2030---ResearchAndMarkets.com

5. https://www.graphicalresearch.com/industry-insights/1349/europe-medical-waste-management-market?gclid=CjwKCAiA1aiMBhAUEiwACw25MXNPxKnqIP0UqOuxvt7-UagKg0atgHdGbp8N58yLC5uxK-zMm5dHghoCkocQAvD_BwE

Tags

healthcare, regulation, europe, pharmaceuticals, medical waste

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