The World Health Organization says overuse of gloves, “moon suits” and the use of billions of masks and vaccination syringes to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus have spurred a huge glut of health care waste worldwide.
The UN health agency reported Tuesday that tens of thousands of tons of extra medical waste has strained waste management systems and is threatening both health and the environment, pointing to a “dire need” to improve those systems and get a response from both governments and people.
“Part of the message for the public is to become more of a conscious consumer,” said Dr. Margaret Montgomery, technical officer of WHO’s water, sanitation, hygiene and health unit. “In terms of the volume, it’s enormous.”
“We find that people are wearing excessive PPE,” Montgomery said, referring to personal protection equipment.
The agency says most of the roughly 87,000 tons of such equipment – including what she called “moon suits” and gloves -- obtained from March 2020 to November 2021 to battle COVID-19 has ended up as waste. More than 8 billion doses of vaccine administered globally have produced 143 tons of extra waste in terms of syringes, needles and safety boxes.
“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right (protective gear),” Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said in a statement. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.”
In the statement, Dr. Anne Woolridge of the International Solid Waste Association said “safe and rational use” of personal protective equipment would reduce environmental harm, save money, reduce possible supply shortages and help prevent infection “by changing behaviors.”
WHO issued recommendations like use of “eco-friendly” packaging and shipping as well as reusable equipment and recyclable or biodegradable materials.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said the excess waste potentially exposes health workers to “needle-stick injuries, burns, infection, and affects communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites.”
The agency called for investment in “non-burn waste treatment” technologies. It reported that 30 percent of healthcare facilities worldwide – and 60 percent in the least developed countries – were already ill-equipped to handle existing waste loads, even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to them to balloon.
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