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Medical, chemical and radioactive waste: Whose responsibility is it anyway?

  • Published at 12:41 am February 14th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:46 am February 14th, 2018
Medical, chemical and radioactive waste: Whose responsibility is it anyway?
Hazardous waste and toxic chemicals continue harming the environment in the rivers surrounding Dhaka, despite numerous initiatives taken by the government and private agencies to manage and control the dangerous pollutants. Medical waste dumped by state-run hospitals, industrial toxic waste, household electronic waste (e-waste) and chemical waste from factories in old Dhaka are posing a serious threat to human health in the capital city, and to aquatic flora and fauna found in water bodies throughout Dhaka. During monsoon, the situation gets worse as medical, toxic chemicals and sewage waste flood Dhaka streets, contaminating dozens of neighbourhoods in the process. State-run organizations, such as Dhaka North City Corporation, Dhaka South City Corporation, Dhaka Water supply and Sewerage Authority, Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha, Department of Environment, Department of Explosives, Fire Services and Civil Defence, Dhaka District Administration, Department of Environment and Dhaka Metropolitan Police, are responsible for keep Dhaka clean and liveable. However, these organizations have a habit of playing the blame game, and shifting responsibilities. In the last few decades, the healthcare sector in Dhaka has witnessed an exponential growth. The city dwellers however claim that the quality of medical services is far from acceptable. Issues such as failure to dispose of waste, and dust pollution, which are internationally recognized indicators, have put Dhaka at the very bottom of the Global livability index in recent consecutive years. According to a report of World Health Organization (WHO), health-focused urban design can roll back the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), making the city a bedrock for healthy lifestyles, as well as climate-friendly. Poor urban waste management also perpetuates transmission of vector-borne and pathogenic viruses and bacteria diseases, including dengue fever as well as Zika and Ebola, two emergent health challenges, says the report.

Medical waste: A serious threat

As there is almost no oversight from the authorities concerned, both state-owned and private healthcare centres basically do as they please for storing and disposing medical waste in Dhaka. According to United Nations Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes is a crucial part of Chapter 20 of Agenda 21. Visiting a number of hospitals in Dhaka, the correspondent has found that medical waste is not receiving adequate attention from the administration, which could lead to an outbreak of infection diseases. According to a study performed by Prism Bangladesh Foundation, the medical waste management system of these hospitals is unsafe in every conceivable field-- collection, segregation, storage, transportation, treatment and final disposal. The report added that the negligence in implementing proper waste disposal methods is putting both the environment and the community at serious risk. Prism Bangladesh, a non-profit voluntary development organization established in 1989, has been working in Dhaka to develop the urban environment and minimize risks through hazardous medical waste management since 2005. This project has been undertaken with the financial support of CIDA, WSP, WHO, the Embassy of Japan and UNDP with the collaboration of former Dhaka city corporation (DCC), Jessore and Savar municipalities. The medical waste disposal issue is growing at an exponential rate, as more and more hospitals, clinics, and diagnostic centers riddle the neighbourhoods of Dhaka. “We are authorized to collect, manage and treat medical and clinical waste from 20 government and 770 privately-owned hospitals, who also pay us for the service in DSCC and DNCC areas,” said Ishtak Mahfuz, Monitoring Officer, Medical Waste Management Program of Prism Bangladesh Foundation. He added: “We collect around 13 tons of medical waste from the 790 public and private clinics, hospitals, diagnosis centres every single day.”

Pollution from chemical waste and sewage

The situation is more terrifying in Old Dhaka, as a lack of recycling efforts has allowed unchecked contamination of local water bodies by chemical waste, sewage, plastic and polyethylene bags. Factories and processing centers in Hazaribagh area, which is known for its leather industry, are infamous for generating a staggering amount of pollution. On March 13, 2017, the DSCC conducted a drive against illegal chemical factories in the area, with supported by the Department of Environment, Department of Explosives, Fire Services and Civil Defence, Dhaka District Administration and DMP. Despite of various deals with Chinese company Hydrochina Corporation and a number of foreign donors, the Dhaka Wasa has yet to implement the much-awaited Dasherkandi Sewage Treatment Plant, which is a part of the Hatirjheel-Begunbari Development Project. Wasa sources said the agency estimates around Tk3,317 crore to build the plant on 60 acres of land in Dasherkandi, Khilgaon, and hopes to finish the project by 2019. However, it has yet to decide which company will supervise the construction or when the project will take off. Wasa Managing Director Taqsem A Khan said Dhaka Wasa provides only 30% sewage management facilities for a lack of funds. He remains optimistic that the situation will improve.

Lack of seriousness about e-waste

There is no dedicated authority in Dhaka for monitoring the safe disposal and recycling of electronic waste (e-waste). Green activists have claimed that increasing number e-waste disrupting the existing solid waste disposal system in the capital. The safe and environmentally sound management of radioactive and electronic waste is the subject of Chapter 22 of Agenda 21 of the UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. The chapter notes that the radiological and safety risk from radioactive waste varies, from very low for short-lived, low-level waste, to very large for high-level waste. DNCC Chief Waste Management Officer Commodore Abdur Razzak said: “The city corporation is responsible for managing only the solid waste, and there are different agencies to manage medical and chemical waste in the city.”