The Hazards of Medical Waste

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Medical waste is one of the biggest threat to metropolitan growth. In order to cope up with the swelling population of Dubai and the influx of visitors, the city has had to improve its healthcare facilities. As a result, there has also been an increase in medical waste which requires proper management and careful disposal. Anything to the contrary can have extremely hazardous consequences to the environment and public health.

Eng. Rashed Karkain of the Dubai Municipality has done deep research on the subject and agrees that it is indeed a serious issue. He has been working at Dubai Municipality for 16 years in the Environment Department, Waste Management Department and now heads the Jebel Ali Sewage Treatment Plant Department. Much of his responsibility over the years has been sustainable Environmental Services and Environmental and Public Health Protection.

“I was also heading the committee in which we carried out a thorough study on quantity and quality of Medical Waste generation in the Emirate of Dubai,” he said.  “We accordingly set up environmental conditions and treatment effectiveness criteria for a sustainable treatment technology that can facilitate the generation of medical waste for at least ten years by modeling the projection of waste increases in relation to other factors such as population growth.”

He added that hospital waste is globally classified as hazardous waste, toxic and even more harmful to human health due to the presence of pathogenic microorganisms in sufficient concentration that could result in transmission of infectious diseases.

According to the Dubai Statistics Center, in 2011, the quantity of hazardous waste treated had increased by 21.8 percent from 2010. Last year, a total of 238 metric tons of pharmaceutical waste was treated in Dubai. And this is just the amount that was treated, the total amount of waste generated is much higher, but of course, not all of it is disposed of correctly. In a report published by Karkain around 5 years ago, he mentioned that total medical waste was expected to reach 4000 tons by 2017, but now he says that figure is likely to be much higher.

Medical waste is generated from hospitals, clinics and other similar premises. This can be potentially infectious and hazardous. Anyone handling this waste is at risk of diseases being transmitted.

According to Karkain, the Dubai Municipality acts as a monitoring body, monitoring waste generation and management in Private and Government Hospitals. Since 2001, all of the medical waste generated in Dubai has been treated and disposed of at the Jebel Ali Medical Waste Treatment Facility.

“Dubai Municipality, as part of its continuous Research and Development and as a proactive measure towards Sustainable Development, focusing on Environmental and Public Health protection, has proper legislations, standards and procedures in place to ensure proper management of medical waste at the source. This includes color-coded bags for different types of wastes from different sources within the healthcare service providers, standards for vehicles that are used for the safe transportation of medical waste as well as a state-of-art medical waste incinerator with double bag filtration system to prevent any emissions of dioxin and other harmful pollutants into ambient air,” said Karkain.

From a waste treatment perspective, Karkain admits that the capacity of the treatment versus the quantity of waste being generated that may challenge the effectiveness and efficiency of the treatment. Dubai Municipality continuously carries out Research and Studies to ensure that tomorrow’s Environmental Services needs are in place today.

According to Karkain, expired medicines are classified as “Pharmaceutical Waste”, which is different to “Medical Waste”. However, in the Emirate of Dubai, Pharmaceutical Waste is also considered hazardous and is dealt within engineered or lined landfills via a controlled permitting system. He says the brunt of the problem is at the supplier level, as the quantity of medicines disposed of at household level is very small in comparison. In fact, pharmacies send unused medicines back to the supplier, and it is then the supplier’s responsibility to dispose of the waste safely. It’s definitely a problem that needs careful management, but it’s not always easy.
“Internationally best practices and best available technologies are always studied and considered, and in certain cases may be enhanced to fit the model that best suits the Emirate of Dubai from all perspectives,” he said.

Everyone has a role to play

As someone who has been studying the problem and its potential solutions for so many years, and currently pursuing a PhD, Karkain’s insight into medical and pharmaceutical waste in the city of Dubai is highly valued. He anticipates that “Green Supply Chain Management” is the next big thing for Dubai that could aim to address the effective and efficient management of Medical and Pharmaceutical Waste from the perspective of minimization as well as continuous improvement of environmentally-friendly treatment and disposals. He says this is a trend that is really picking up globally, whereby everyone in the circle of stakeholders can have a role to play in the reduction of medical and pharmaceutical waste. For example, even the packaging of certain medicines are biodegradable in some countries.

At consumer level, it certainly helps to be aware of the copious amounts of medical and pharmaceutical waste collecting in landfills and seeping hazardous chemicals into the earth and atmosphere. It’s enough to make us think twice before buying medicines in bulk and discarding them casually. Some pharmacies will actually accept expired medicines from customers and will dispose of them accordingly. Check in your area if this service is offered.

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