Ever wondered why ultra cheap plastic products, especially our household utensils such as crockery, feeders and water bottles etc are often on sale at scores of outlets in different parts of the city? One would think the products are cheaper than the cost of their material; what about the other input costs such as labour, electricity, transportation, and wages?
But many a time people don’t bother to think on these lines and want to walk away having purchased the low-priced products. What they need to be told is that though it may not be true in every case, it is quite possible that the item they picked was made from illegally recycled infectious medical waste.
The main reasons for this are that this ‘waste’ is available at low cost and the material used is of very high quality.
Several raids carried out by relevant authorities have shown that the ‘trade’ goes on unabated, and the mafias involved are making a huge amount of money. The situation calls for a review of the systems that exist for collection and disposal of medical waste, especially the infectious one.
Presently, there is just one private company that collects medical waste from the government and private facilities, and charges Rs65 (approx.) per kg to properly dispose it off. Unfortunately, there is no central monitoring system in place to find out if there is any pilferage and that all the medical facilities are benefitting from the system.
Naseem-ur Rehman, Director, Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab, confirms that illegal trade in medical waste exists and also that the authorities have busted several gangs involved. “The culprits have a misconception that it [medical waste] can be cleared of all impurities and harmful components through treatment,” he tells TNS.
His point is that the infected medical waste has to be incinerated and there are no two ways about it. “The shortage of incinerators has been an issue for a long time, but the good news is that these are being provided to every district of the province.”
One question that arises here is regarding the difference between ordinary medical waste and the infectious one. Rehan Piracha, Senior Manager Planning and Projects Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC), explains: “The waste formed is infectious when the material comes into contact with disease-affected substances such as urine bags, blood bottles, carriers having specimen of sputum, blood, saliva, stools, semen etc in it.”
According to an official document on the topic, infectious waste, if disposed off along with the municipal waste, ultimately infects all municipal waste. Consequently, the volume of the infectious waste increases which may be the source of many diseases. This waste, if treated inappropriately, may cause adverse environmental impacts such as air pollution, soil contamination, underground water contamination and spread of infection in food chain, spread of contagious diseases e.g. Hepatitis-C, AIDS etc.
Piracha says that the infectious waste is generated in hospitals, clinics, laboratories, dispensaries, pharmacies, nursing homes, maternity centres, blood banks, research institutes, and veterinary hospitals etc. Also, when healthcare is being provided to patients at home and where it is usually mixed with municipal waste.
Akhlaq Ahmed Khan, the spokesman of the Specialised Healthcare & Medical Education (SHC&ME) Department, Government of Punjab, says that though the system is not 100 per cent foolproof, the public hospitals have put a system in place to minimise or stem pilferage. “The medical waste is segregated according to its nature and weighed before and after its transportation to disposal sites to ensure that nothing has been removed from the containers.
“The practices at private hospitals are not directly monitored by the health department,” he adds.
Recently, an agreement was signed between SHC&ME and LWMC on the ‘Establishment of Hospital Waste Management System in Lahore.’ According to the project paper, there are 17 public tertiary hospitals, 199 major private hospitals, and 58 major pathological laboratories in the city. Total Infectious waste produced at these facilities is 17,537 per day.
The main issue regarding its collection and disposal include: i)poor onsite collection and segregation practices; ii)closure or poor efficiency of the existing incinerator facilities; iii)pilferage of infectious waste from the hospitals and from the waste collection vehicles; iv)inadequate treatment facilities; v)unauthorised recycling of infectious waste; vi)improper operation of incinerators by unskilled/untrained staff; and vii)lack of enforcement of hospital waste management authorities by environment departments and authorities.
Furthermore, the said project involves a mix of treatment facilities — a combination of autoclaves and incinerator. The autoclaves shall be installed for the treatment of infectious waste (which mainly consists of PVC content), excluding pathological waste; whereas for the treatment of pathological waste (free from PVC waste), incineration facility present in Children Hospital having capacity of 2-2.5 tons/ day, shall be repaired and maintained to meet the Punjab Environmental Quality Standards (PEQS).
Private healthcare units will also have to follow certain rules. It will be made mandatory for them to store waste category-wise in yellow/red bags and sharp containers in the central storage facility in their own premises.
“The private hospitals will be bound to equip their central storage facility with the required specification of I.T. gadgets as per the directions of the LWMC,” the paper adds. “For small scale laboratories/ healthcare units, the collection and transportation supervisors will carry mobile weighing scale and laptops having internet connectivity on dedicated vehicles, 02 trucks (specialised vehicles) so that IT-based bar code generation system may be ensured.”
Ali Mazhar, the spokesman of LWMC, says the barcodes shall be generated at the time of packing the waste, and the movement of vehicles carrying it shall be monitored through trackers in real time in order to ensure that there is no pilferage at all. “Its movement from the collection point to the disposal site shall be visible to the project management team,” he says.
Mazhar reveals that the rates offered by the LWMC shall be between Rs40- Rs42 per kg, which is quite competitive as compared to the rates offered by the private operators. “We are offering both quality and economy to the clients to make them choose for our service themselves.”
Khalid Mahmood, a labour rights activist, and a staunch advocate of consumer protectionism, calls for inspection and grading of containers and utensils used to store and consume food. The relevant authorities shall make random raids and fine the producers and sellers of such stuff made from hazardous waste, especially the infectious hospital waste. “The people must know whether the products they are buying are food graded or not,” he insists.