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Hospital waste raises public health concerns

Toxic hospital waste being released in residential areas in southern Iraq is causing a health and environmental hazard in the Basra area, despite repeated appeals for help to tackle the situation, according to local sources in both fields. "The waste usually consists of pharmaceutical, chemical, radioactive, infectious and other materials that should only be disposed of in incinerators, which burn the materials at high temperatures," Hasan Sahib, an environmental activist, said. Other sterilisation techniques, such as high-pressure steam treatment, are increasingly more important than incineration in the safe disposal of hospital waste in the developed world, but the treatment of pollutants and toxic waste is regarded as vital everywhere. Liquid waste is going directly into sewers and rivers, and solid waste is being burned but not in an incinerator, according to Sahib. Vials, syringes and substances from intravenous (IV) units, and sometimes even body parts, are not being disposed of properly, health workers confirmed. "We do not have waste treatment equipment to treat it before draining liquid into the sewage systems,” said Dr Ra’ad Salman, general director of Basra health department. “We only have old systems which are old fashioned and not sufficient." He estimates that Basra hospitals and clinics produce between 15 and 25 mt of waste daily. "We have asked the US forces and many other organisations to build medical waste treatment units in Basra," he said. "They promised us, but nothing has been done so far.” The doctor explained that disease and illnesses have already increased by 10 percent due to an accumulation of health issues. “We also suffer from the negligence of employees collecting waste,” Salman said. “They do not apply the techniques of waste - classifying and separation in medical bags that are distributed by the health directorate - although we have now sent some of them abroad to learn about techniques.” Mohamed Hasan aged 15, a waste collector, has contracted typhoid, a bacterial infection of the intestines and occasionally the bloodstream, often associated with poor hygiene practices that cause the germs to spread through food and water. Hasan has now been hospitalised. “Many people told me that my job is dangerous but my father died and my three brothers, my mother and I have to work,” he told IRIN. “We are obliged to work in this job to earn a living.” When asked if he would return to the job he said: “Yes, because I do not have any other work.” Rubbish accumulating in the streets has also led to children scavenging through the dumped material, looking for items to sell. The medical waste processing units increasingly being used worldwide are known as autoclaving machines. Using steam at high pressure to sterilise objects used in medical operations, they are often used instead of hospital incinerators. The technique dramatically reduces environmental pollutants, according to experts, but waste management is still an important concern. Current hospital waste disposal practices in Basra, and the lack of treatment equipment, fall well shy of acceptable, and pose a considerable threat to health, according to Dr Salman. “The current situation will lead to accumulating waste in the hospital and this is very dangerous,” he said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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