Biomedical Waste: How COVID is infecting our Enviornment
By Albert Kang and Jiwoo Hwang
Since 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected society through quarantines, social distancing requirements, sanitization, and mask mandates. Many people, however, aren’t aware of the effects COVID-19 has had on our environment.
Doctors fight the corona virus every day in busy hospitals as a record number of patients show up, leading to higher demands and usage of medical products such as syringes, surgical masks and gloves, and needles.
These medical products are exposed to potentially infectious agents, including body fluids and germs. Therefore if they are not disposed of properly, they are sources of biomedical waste that will have severe negative consequences on not just the ecosystem and environment, but also on humans.
To properly dispose of medical waste, there are generally two main disposal methods: incineration and landfill disposal. Before both processes, though, medical waste goes through a primary process called steam sterilization.
The primary goal of steam sterilization is to expose the waste to direct steam contact at a high temperature and pressure to kill any pathogens that could potentially transmit diseases. Thus if medical waste or any biomedical waste does not go through steam sterilization, the existing pathogens will become a potent danger.
Like most other waste, biomedical waste can become runoff that can seep into aquifers, the major source of human drinking water.
If the pathogens from biomedical waste enter aquifers, humans will be exposed to these pathogens, leading to germs and infections. Steam sterilization is an important process for the disposal of medical waste to prevent potential exposure to contaminants.
But even if biomedical waste undergoes steam sterilization, the waste can still disrupt ecosystems. Specific types of algae, namely Karenia and Karenia Brevis, overgrow when exposed to biomedical waste due to the high amount of nutrients that the waste supplies.
High amounts of these algae are threatful to the ecosystem due to the fatal toxins they produce that are capable of harming and killing marine animals. Eventually, as more marine animals die, decomposition rates rise, leading to damage to water quality and eutrophication.
Eutrophication is the process where an abundance of dissolved minerals leads to an overgrowth of aquatic plants, therefore resulting in a depletion of oxygen due to excess photosynthesis. This phenomenon is known as the Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB). Because most ecosystems rely on bodies of water, it is imperative to properly handle biomedical waste to prevent it from seeping into groundwater sources.
Fortunately, some measures for this have already been taken. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have set up strict regulations for hospitals to follow when handling medical waste.
Hospitals are required to dispose of medical waste in separate biohazardous plastic bags and bins from other waste materials. The isolated biomedical waste is transported to a final bin, which will undergo steam sterilization. Although these regulations have had positive effects, it is not a total solution to preventing harmful consequences.
For example, there are lots of federal laws, regulations, and standards regarding handling biomedical waste, but most of these are outdated due to the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. One such regulation is the Hospital Medical Infectious Waste Incinerator (HMIWI) standards established by EPA which were last revised in May of 2013. The standards are not fit for today’s necessities and need to be revised in order to adapt to the current situation.
Additionally, households are producing more biomedical waste than usual due to an increase in usage of masks and rapid at-home test kits. This becomes a problem when people need to pay for biohazardous containers due to a lack of public access, resulting in most civilians choosing to dispose of biomedical waste as general waste, causing environmental and health issues.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still on the rise, amounts of biomedical waste will continue to increase. The environment and people’s health are at stake.
Government agencies need to take more effective and efficient actions to inform the public about the importance of proper disposal, as well as the location of the final collection bins. Furthermore, existing laws and regulations, including the HMIWI standards, must be updated and reinforced in order to have a positive effect on the post-pandemic society.
So how can you help?
Although using reusable equipment can have a positive effect, there are more complete solutions. Throw away your biomedical wastes including masks in proper biohazardous containers separate from your everyday trash. Spread awareness to others. Locate your nearest final collection bin.
Most importantly, be aware and care.