Discarded syringes, used test kits and old vaccine vials from the COVID-19 pandemic have accumulated to create tens of thousands of tons of medical waste, threatening human health and the environment, according to a report by the World Health Organization on Tuesday.
The material, some of which could be infectious since the coronavirus can survive on surfaces, potentially exposes health care workers to burns, needlestick injuries and pathogenic germs, according to the report.
Communities near poorly managed landfills can also be affected by air contaminated by burning waste, poor water quality or disease-carrying pests, he added.
The report calls for reforms and investment, including reducing the use of packaging that has sparked a plastic rush and using protective gear made from reusable and recyclable materials.
He estimates that some 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE), the equivalent of the weight of several hundred blue whales, have been ordered through a UN portal through November 2021 – most of which would have ended up as waste.
The report also mentions some 140 million test kits that could generate 2,600 tons of mostly plastic waste and enough chemical waste to fill a third of an Olympic swimming pool.
In addition, he estimates that some 8 billion doses of vaccine administered worldwide produced 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of glass vials, syringes, needles and safety boxes.
The WHO report did not cite specific examples of where the most egregious accumulations occurred, but referred to challenges such as limited official treatment and disposal of waste in the rural India as well as large volumes of faecal sludge from quarantine facilities in Madagascar.
Even before the pandemic, around a third of healthcare facilities were not equipped to handle existing waste loads, the WHO said. This reached 60% in poor countries, he said.
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