The World Health Organization warns of health care risks posed by discarded COVID-19 equipment and is calling on nations to better manage their systems for disposing of the used gear.
Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic requires the use of huge quantities of personal protective equipment or PPE and the use of needles and syringes to administer vaccines, among other essential products.
A new World Health Organization global analysis finds the quantities of health care waste generated by the goods are enormous and potentially dangerous. Maggie Montgomery is the technical officer for water, sanitation and health in the WHO Department of Environment.
She says COVID-19 has increased health care risks in facilities at up to 10 times previous volumes.
“If you consider that two in three health care facilities in the least developed countries did not have systems to segregate or safely treat waste before this pandemic, you can just imagine how much burden this extra waste load has put on health care workers, on communities, especially where waste is burned," Montgomery said.
The report finds the hazardous disposal of COVID-19 waste potentially exposes health workers to needle stick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, air pollution and many dangers associated with living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites.
WHO experts analyzed approximately 87,000 tons of PPE that were shipped to needy countries between March 2020 and November 2021 through a joint U.N. emergency initiative. Most of the equipment, they say, was expected to end up as waste.
The report provides an initial indication of the scale of the COVID-19 waste problem that exists only within the health sector, which is enormous. Montgomery says it does not look at the volumes of waste being generated in the wider community.
“In terms of the waste generated by the public, in particular masks. For example, in 2020, there were 4.5 trillion additional disposable masks thrown away by the public, which led to six million tons of additional waste," Montgomery said. "So, certainly, the public is generating the most. At the same time, we feel that the health sector has a really important role and there are many concrete things that can be done to reduce, unnecessary use of PPE.”
WHO recommendations for safer and more environmentally sustainable waste practices include using eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable gloves and medical masks, and investing in non-burn waste treatment technologies.