Medical Waste: Vaccines Prevent Infection... Right?
You step into the doctor's office, immediately recognizing the stale stench of rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer. The soft sniffling of children can be heard down the hallway, and you take a seat, bristling at how cold the chair is when it touches your skin. You are soon called into a room by a nurse who takes your measurements. After some remembrance of your vaccine schedule, you soon realize that you are due for the flu shot. You simply agree to this notion and wait for the nurse to come back with a prepared needle. Not long after, the needle is injected into your body, and you see the nurse dispose of it in a small red plastic container marked with a biohazard sign.
However, little do you know that your syringe may not have made it to a responsible medical waste disposal center. Many facilities fail to properly dispose of this waste, as it is often mistakened for recyclable material and is sent to recycling facilities instead. The workers at these facilities are then at risk of contracting and transmitting serious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Furthermore, careless handling of this material results in workers being vulnerable to needle stick injuries from broken containers inside garbage trucks or scratching themselves when needles stick out of bags. Improper disposal can in fact help spread certain diseases and viruses, thus leading to a vicious cycle of treatment and infection and back again.
Especially during the current coronavirus pandemic, it's crucial for us to be mindful of how we're handling the discarded waste of treatment procedures from the COVID-19. Countless treatment centers and hospitals are scrambling around in order to keep up with the demanding number of infected patients, and very few take the time and thought to question where all of this treatment material goes after it has done its job. The amount of garbage contaminated with bodily fluids and other infectious materials has escalated drastically since the virus has taken its toll. In order to prevent the potential spread of the virus through medical waste, it's high time we started focusing on this unspoken side of the story.
"In Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus first emerged, officials didn’t just need to build new hospitals for the influx of patients; they had to construct a new medical waste plant and deploy 46 mobile waste treatment facilities too. Hospitals there generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. The daily output of medical waste reached 240 metric tons, about the weight of an adult blue whale."
As shown above, many people are focusing on treatment and neglecting the waste that is a byproduct of this treatment. The handling of this waste should be considered just as crucial as treatment due to the fact that without proper elimination of the waste, it will make the virus even harder to stamp out and flatten the curve. Without responsibly discarding the resulting medical waste, we are only making a more uncertain future when it comes to human health and development.
"the virus can persist for up to a day on cardboard and for longer on metal and plastic,"
The overhead quote is just another reason why we should be more wary of the resulting byproducts of treatments. It is widely known that medical supplies are mainly made of metal and plastic, and a huge majority of these supplies are packaged in cardboard. From the mere packaging of medical tools to the scalpel itself, are we properly discarding and decontaminating them? Currently, there are facilities that are buring this waste to get rid of it, but burning too much waste continuously remains a hazard to the people living near these facilities. The air around them will be polluted, and most likely will pose as a threat to human health.
Instead, there are several other ways that this waste can be discarded of safely:
1) Thermal treatment
Thermal treatment such as microwave technologies carry a promising solution to the contamination of biohazardous waste. The heat from the microwaves can deactivate the waste, therefore making it much safer during the process of getting rid of it. (epa, 2017; SAGE Journals, 2017)
2) Steam sterilization
Steam sterilization, such as autoclaving, is a cheap and effective way to sterilize medical waste. Steam, pressure, temperature, and time band together to kill microorganisms. (epa, 2017; cdc, 2016)
This process chemically decomposes material under high temperatures without the presence of oxygen. This process eliminates the dangers that medical waste has to anyone who deals with it. (epa, 2017; azocleantech, 2013)
These are just some of the many possible solutions to prevent the spread of hazardous fluids through medical waste. Although many facilities are far too familiar with incinerating their waste, it is up to us to draw more attention to the stability and safety of the transport and disposal of medical waste. So, whether it's just a used needle from a vaccine or an amputated body part, I urge you to take a stand and raise your voice against the irresponsible disposal of medical waste.
Rinkesh, Rinkesh. “Medical Waste Disposal and Companies Involved in It.” Conserve Energy Future, 25 Dec. 2016, www.conserve-energy-future.com/medical-waste-disposal.php.
.gov, epa. “Medical Waste.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 7 Nov. 2017, www.epa.gov/rcra/medical-waste.
Calma, Justine. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Generating Tons of Medical Waste.” The Verge, The Verge, 26 Mar. 2020, www.theverge.com/2020/3/26/21194647/the-covid-19-pandemic-is-generating-tons-of-medical-waste.
2013, Written by AZoCleantechJan 17. “What Is Pyrolysis?”AZoCleantech.com, 18 Feb. 2020, www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=336.
Zimmermann, Klaus. “Microwave as an Emerging Technology for the Treatment of Biohazardous Waste: A Mini-Review - Klaus Zimmermann, 2017.”SAGE Journals, PubMed, 2 Feb. 2017, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0734242X16684385.
.gov, cdc. “Steam Sterilization.”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 Sept. 2016, www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/sterilization/steam.html.