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Medical waste, bad for your health and bad for your rights, warns UN expert

GENEVA (14 September 2011) – A new report* by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste, Calin Georgescu, says the international community has to date paid little attention to the growing problem of medical waste around the world, despite the threat it poses to millions of people and the environment.

“Some 20 to 25 per cent of the total waste generated by health-care establishments is regarded as hazardous and may create a variety of health and environmental risks if not managed and disposed of in an appropriate manner,” warns the independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council to report on the adverse effects of the movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights.

Hazardous health-care waste includes infectious waste, sharps, anatomical and pathological waste, obsolete or expired chemical products and pharmaceuticals, and radioactive materials. Medical waste is often mixed with general household waste, and either disposed of in municipal waste facilities or dumped illegally.

“A significant number of people – including medical staff, patients, workers in support services linked to health-care facilities, workers in waste disposal facilities, recyclers, scavengers and the general public – are potentially at risk of injury or contamination through accidental exposure to health-care waste,” Mr. Georgescu stresses.

The report notes that, significant challenges persist in many countries with regard to the proper management and disposal of health-care waste. “The amount of waste generated by healthcare facilities in developing countries is increasing owing to the expansion of health-care systems and services,” the Special Rapporteur says. In his view, this situation is exacerbated by the lack of adequate technological and financial resources to ensure that health-care waste is managed and disposed of in a manner that is safe for human health and the environment.

“In health-care establishments where hazardous medical waste is incinerated,” Mr. Georgescu says, “open burning and widespread deficiencies in the operation and management of small-scale medical waste incinerators result in incomplete waste destruction, inappropriate ash disposal and dioxins emissions, which can be even 40,000 times higher than emission limits set forth in international conventions.”

Contaminated sharps is the category of medical waste that attracts the most attention, according to the report. “Needle-stick injuries and reuse of infected sharps expose health-care workers and the community as a whole to blood-borne pathogens, including hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus and Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV),” the independent expert explains. “However, each type of hazardous medical waste presents hazards that jeopardise the enjoyment of human rights.”

In his report, Mr. Georgescu makes a number of specific recommendations, among them, raising awareness of the risks hazardous medical waste pose to human health and the environment, especially among policymakers and communities living in the vicinity of sites where medical waste is incinerated or landfilled.

The Special Rapporteur also proposes the development of a comprehensive international legal framework for the management and disposal of hazardous medical waste, as well as the replacement of incineration as a disposal method of hazardous medical waste with more environmentally-friendly and safe methods of disposal, such as autoclaving.

Calin Georgescu, the Executive Director of the National Centre for Sustainable Development in Bucharest (Romania), was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2011 by the Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.

(*) Check the full report presented to the UN Human Rights Council: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-31_en.pdf

Learn more on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/environment/waste/index.htm

For inquiries and media requests, please contact Stefano Sensi (Phone: +41 22917 9107 / email: srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org) .

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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