At least 14,500 tons of waste, including used gloves, masks, hand sanitizer containers, and polythene have been generated in the month of April across Bangladesh
Untreated medical waste is prolonging the Covid-19 pandemic, threatening biodiversity and provoking some worst return from nature in the form of future health hazard.
In today’s world, human beings are producing waste at a much faster rate and destroying biodiversity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first infection of Covid-19 was linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading from person to person.
Now the human race is fighting against Covid-19 infection. In this fighting process, they are throwing away more infectious medical waste into nature which is also creating a threat to the environment, biodiversity, as well as human health.
Today (June 5) is the World Environment Day. The theme of this year is “Celebrate Biodiversity.”
While the world prepares to observe the day, Covid-19 related medical waste, mostly plastic, is generated in huge numbers in Bangladesh.
These waste are haphazardly thrown away here and there, many of which carry the coronavirus.
Health experts and environmentalists say more people are getting infected through these untreated medical waste.
They are also speculating that Covid-19 may last longer due to mismanagement of medical waste. These medical waste are harming biodiversity, water bodies, forest, and marine ecosystems. Nature may return those in the form of health hazards again.
According to the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), at least 14,500 tons of waste, including used gloves, masks, hand sanitizer containers, and polythene have been generated in the month of April across Bangladesh.
Dhaka alone generated 3,076 tons of waste – 1,916 from gloves (1,314 tons from surgical gloves and 602 tons from polythene gloves), 447 from surgical masks, 443 from polythene shopping bags, and 270 from used hand sanitizer containers.
Prof Mohammad Abul Faiz, a public health specialist, said: “Medical waste is generated in two ways. One is inside the hospital another is outside the hospital. In both cases, medical waste management is an important issue.
“In the age of Covid-19, it is important to manage medical waste properly. Hospitals generate communicable disease-related waste. If used masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are not disposed of properly, Covid-19 will spread through these.” he said.
How medical waste is spreading Covid-19
Mohammed Sumon is an informal waste collector at Shewrapara in the capital city. He collects domestic waste and brings waste to Taltola, a secondary waste collection centre of Dhaka North City Corporation.
Sumon said: “We find used face masks, hand gloves with the domestic waste in the same bin from almost every house every day. We bring all the waste together in the secondary waste collection centre.
“Every day, I am handling these used face masks, gloves. I know that I can get infected with Covid-19 by getting exposed to those,” he said.
According to ESDO, around 40,000 informal waste collectors work across the country. During the lockdown, the number of operational waste collectors or waste management workers reduced by almost 50% in Dhaka.
Dr Shahriar Hossain, general secretary of ESDO said: “We contacted some waste collectors who are not working right now as they fell sick. Some have a fever and some are suffering from cough and none of them got the opportunity to get a test to see if they have Covid-19. Their health and life are both at risk.”
“Waste collectors or whoever else comes into contact with these used face masks, gloves may be infected with Covid-19,” he said.
“No one can separate medical waste from domestic waste as those are not recyclable, thus harming the human health,” he added.
How medical waste threatening nature and biodiversity
Some waste contaminates soil, some contaminates the air and the rest ends up in the Bay of Bengal through rivers.
Shahriar Hossain Said, “Unplanned medical waste dumping in coastal districts may harm the biodiversity of the Sundarbans as well as the marine ecosystems of Bay of Bengal, as the virus can live up to 120 hours in water.”
“Medical waste can cause serious damage to the wildlife of the Sundarbans,” he said.
“Cats, Tigers, and other animals already tested positive for Covid-19 abroad and they can infect other animals of their type. How it can infect fish, aquatic mammals and marine lives are not clear so far. More research is needed in this regard.” he added.
Raquibul Amin, country representative of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said: “Untreated used PPE (Mask gloves and others) are added with the existing plastic waste. We want to stop the use of plastic. On the other hand, we are using more plastic to protect us from Covid-19.
“All kinds of waste including medical waste is harmful to the environment and human health. Waste containing heavy metals enters the aquatic system and returns to the human body through the food chain causing serious health damage,” he said.
“Plastic waste is threatening marine life in the ocean to a great extreme. Coronavirus has shown us why we should be more conscious about waste,” he added.
M Zakir Hossain Khan, senior program manager (Climate Finance Governance) at Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) said: “Prevention is more economic than cure. We damaged our rivers by dumping untreated waste, losing forest due to encroachment. We can never recover the biodiversity we lost.
“All the administrators involved with waste management should come under accountability,” he said.
How can medical waste be managed
PRISM, an NGO, is the sole organization involved with medical waste management. But the organization mainly works in Dhaka.
They expanded their operation in Sylhet, Rangpur, Narayanganj city corporation areas as well as Jessore and Savar municipalities.
They only manage medical waste generated from hospitals and clinics though some are excluded from their services in the above mentioned areas. Five times more medical waste is generated outside Dhaka.
Anisur Rahman, executive director of PRISM said: “We collect waste from medical centres and we incinerate 100% waste to avoid infection from waste.
“Now used PPEs are getting mixed with the domestic waste. PRISM is not engaged in domestic waste management. The government should separate medical waste from the source and manage it properly,” he suggested.
ESDO General Secretary Shahriar Hossain said: “A separate guideline is needed for Covid-19 related medical waste management.”
Ziaul Haque, director at the Department of Environment (DoE) said: “We will circulate a public briefing in light of a guideline prepared by Asian Development Bank. All have to follow the instructions of that briefing.
“DoE requested to call an inter-ministerial meeting with concerned ministries regarding waste management,” he said.
State of human interaction in biodiversity
According to the Environmental Performance Index 2018, Bangladesh is placed at the 179th position among 180 countries.
According to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, a total of 416,258 acres of forest land has been destroyed in the country since 1989.
Of which, 37% have been allotted to various government and non-government organizations, and the rest 63% has been encroached illegally.
Due to uncontrolled deforestation, 39 wildlife species have already become extinct in Bangladesh and about 30 more species, including the Royal Bengal Tiger, are in a critical condition, which is increasingly threatening the forest-based life cycle and ecosystem.
“We are destroying the habitats of microbial lives including many unknown killers,” M Zakir Hossain Khan said.