Medical waste disposal a mess

2011-05-07 17:01

South Africa cannot deal properly with the disposal of the more than 42 200 tons of bloodied bandages, used syringes and body parts generated yearly by hospitals, clinics and laboratories.

According to research commissioned by the environmental ­affairs and tourism department, the country has the commercial treatment capacity to handle the risky healthcare waste.

But because government departments cannot enforce legislation governing the disposal of this waste, there is a plague of illegal dumping and other malpractices.

And fierce competition between companies contracted to dispose of it has also resulted in horrifying illegal practices affecting people and the environment.

Insiders told City Press that the industry operates in an underworld of tender wars, blackening the names and reputations of competitors, and even “sabotaging” competing operations.

So ominous is the situation that the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa has called a healthcare waste ­summit to discuss ethics in the ­industry.

“The industry needs a united front,” said institute president Stan Jewaskiewitz, “so all stakeholders can achieve the standards we so desperately need in the ­correct management of medical waste.”

The title of the keynote address to be delivered by University of ­Johannesburg’s Professor Gideon Els is Accepting Your Medical Waste Responsibility .?.?.?Ethically!

“Everybody in the industry has the rules on their walls,” Els said. “The problem is that everybody ­ignores them.”

Referring to the dumping ­scandal in Welkom two years ago, Els pointed out that this kind of ­illegal activity had serious consequences for people in the area.

“Children were playing there.” (The Green Scorpions uncovered more than 17 000 tons of waste, ­including body parts at four Welkom sites.)

The environmental affairs department survey included consultation with the national health ­department, nine provincial environment departments, eight ­provincial health departments, five private hospital groups, four municipalities and 19 healthcare risk-waste service ­providers.

The study uncovered a horrifying list of problems relating to the way South Africa deals with its healthcare risk waste.

This includes a lack of accessible facilities in places where risk waste is generated and a lack of effective enforcement of legislation governing the handling of risk waste.

It also includes a lack of communication between national, ­provincial and municipal authorities tasked with managing the disposal of healthcare risk waste and a lack of uniform standards for its management on a national level.

The survey found that government departments lacked uniform standards with regard to risk-waste tender specifications and ­also the will to enforce the specifications when they outsourced risk waste management services.

The survey found that the country also lacked the human resources required to deal with the problem. And it pointed out that the industry itself was no more efficient than the government.

South Africa’s lack of capacity to deal with all its healthcare risk waste was a result of a lack of cooperation between private service providers.

At the bottom of the problem was “fierce and even unhealthy ­competition”, according to the ­survey. Healthcare risk waste is currently the subject of three ­high-profile court cases and a ­­­huge dumping ­investigation in Durban.

The extent of the problem will be illustrated by three forthcoming court cases.

» At the end of May, Thermopower Technologies directors Christos Eleftheriades, Derek Oldnall and David Smith will appear in the Kempton Park Regional Court on charges relating to transgressions of environmental laws.

» In the North Gauteng High Court, Durban-based Compass Waste Services is contesting the awarding of a R200-million Limpopo medical-waste tender to ­Ingwe Waste Management and Buhle Waste, a company linked to Premier Cassel Mathale and the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

» The high court date for the ­individuals and companies involved in the Welkom dumping scandal will soon be determined.

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