PMB ignores waste laws

2014-02-14 00:00

Flying in the face of the long-standing KwaZulu-Natal medical waste incineration ban issued by the provincial Department of Health after the last incinerator in KZN failed, the national Department of Environmental Affairs has just issued a waste management licence to a company called Sirela Trading for its proposal to build and operate a medical waste incinerator in Mkondeni.

Sirela Trading has no previous experience in the field of medical waste incineration and is proposing to buy and construct a facility from a local engineering firm. Incineration is the least desirable technology to treat and dispose of medical waste and it has a long history, globally and in South Africa, of poor operation and maintenance, massive pollution episodes, technology failure, illegal dumping, and environmental prosecution by the Green Scorpions. Most recently, a medical-waste incinerator operated by EnviroServe in Bloemfontein has been adversely affecting neighbouring residents over the past few years.

In 2009, the Green Scorpions unearthed 300 tons of untreated medical waste buried within a brickworks, 20 tons of medical waste buried in an unused Harmony Gold mine shaft, and a further two illegal dumps, one on a game farm 20 km outside Welkom and the other at the town’s showgrounds.

The dumped medical waste comprised anatomical waste (amputated legs, arms, placentas, and foetuses), pharmaceutical components and general medical waste, including used syringes, gloves and blood-stained material.

The DEA currently “rigidly” requires elements of health-care risk waste to be incinerated, and herein lies the root of the crisis. Health-care risk waste is defined by them as: “ … waste capable of producing any disease and includes but is not limited to the following: laboratory waste, pathological waste, isolation waste, genotoxic waste, infectious liquids and waste, sharps waste, chemical waste and pharmaceutical waste”.

From this definition, the DEA requires that pathological and anatomical waste can only be incinerated, and for this reason provinces that do not have incineration capacity have to transport this waste to incinerators in other provinces. This is despite there being alternative technologies, such as the autoclaves that they use to treat the general medical waste, and which meet the required international standard of sterilisation for health-care risk waste.

This construct further necessitates that the private sector in various provinces has sub-contracts in order to treat its waste requiring incineration, and it is in this manner that the complex web of contracts and subcontracts is spun, and how waste ends up in a ditch located in a brick factory.

In South Africa, health-care risk waste that requires special treatment and disinfection is placed in red bags at source. Nevertheless, health-care facilities that use private waste contractors do not have in place separation policies at source (into recycle, reuse and compost) and they routinely misplace large amounts of general health-care waste (including recyclables) into red “health-care risk waste” bags, which most private contractors are happy to burn, because the more red-bag waste they process, the bigger the profit.

However, of the estimated 42 000 tons of health-care risk waste in South Africa per annum, the percentage that is defined as “pathological and anatomical waste” is estimated at about only five percent (2 100 tons per annum). If it were only this proportion of the waste stream that required incineration, then one could safely assume we have an “over capacity” of health-care waste risk incineration in South Africa and that medical waste which does not, in fact, require incineration is needlessly being transported, stockpiled and incinerated at a current risk to the public’s health (considering the poor regulatory and compliance record of the health incineration industry).

Furthermore, most current health-care risk waste incinerators in South Africa will not meet the provisions of the pending “listed activities and associated minimum emission standards” identified in terms of section 21 of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, 2004 (Act No. 39 of 2004) and will in fact be shut down if the DEA applies these standards.

We consider a logical approach for the KZN DoH and DEA to follow would be to legislate and encourage the phase-in of alternative technologies to treat health-care risk waste.

• Rico Euripidiou is the environmental health campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa.

• rico@groundwork.org.za

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