University of São Paulo: Waste from health services grows with the pandemic and worries experts

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the covid-19 pandemic has generated an increase of thousands of tons of waste discarded by health services around the world. In addition to the quantity, this increase also drew attention to the management and disposal of this waste, often carried out incorrectly.

According to the WHO, most of this waste is probably not properly disposed of. Professor Karina Pavão, from the Faculty of Medical and Biological Sciences of Botucatu (FMB) at Unesp and a member of the Planetary Health Studies group at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA) at USP, says that “Health Services Waste (RSS) ) can present a series of risks to the population and the environment”.

pandemic garbage

The waste generated during the pandemic included 87,000 tons of personal protective equipment purchased by countries between March 2020 and November 2021. In this account, there are more than 140 million discarded covid-19 tests, with the potential to generate 2.6 thousand tons of non-infectious waste, in addition to 731 thousand liters of chemical waste. The 8 billion doses of vaccine administered in the analyzed period produced 144 thousand tons more of waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes, destined to store the vaccines. All this signals that “there has been a considerable increase”, says Professor Valdir Schalch, from the Department of Hydraulics and Sanitation of the School of Engineering of São Carlos (EESC) at USP and from the University of Ribeirão Preto (Unaerp), since “they are waste very dangerous, even if in small quantities.

Karina says that, according to the WHO, “around 15% of hospitals and health services are potentially infectious, with biological risks”, which must undergo incineration, autoclaving (sterilized) or undergo a microwave oven treatment. waves to inactivate pathogens, viruses and bacteria from the infectious waste before going to the landfill.

Disposal of masks

Regarding the proper disposal of masks in environments where they are already used, such as health units (hospitals, blood centers, veterinary clinics and pharmacies, for example), there is already a specific place, which are milky white bags, intended to receive this garbage that characterizes it as health services. As for sharp materials, such as needles and syringes, there are appropriate boxes to receive this type of waste. “Now, in homes, the orientation is to place used masks with the waste to be taken to landfills; even if there is selective garbage collection, the masks must go with the common garbage to the sanitary landfill”, guides Professor Schalch.


Health service waste

In Brazil, in 2020, around 290 thousand tons of waste from health services were collected in the country’s municipalities, according to the Brazilian Association of Public Cleaning Companies and Special Waste (Abrelpe). This waste comes from hospitals, health centers, medical and dental offices, veterinary clinics, pharmacies, among other health services. Professor Schalch informs that these residues are classified according to the resolution of the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), RDC No. 222/18 , together with the Resolution of the National Council for the Environment (Conama) No. 358, in: Group A: biological waste; Group B: chemical waste; Group C: radioactive waste; Group D: common waste; and Group E: sharps residues.


Coordinator of the Solid Waste Study and Research Center (Neper), Schalch explains that each group of waste “has a sequence of operations to be carried out, so that they have an environmentally appropriate destination”.

But, despite the requirements provided by law for collection, treatment and disposal, the structure of Brazilian municipalities to deal with waste from health services is still insufficient. In the country, around 30% of Brazilian municipalities still dispose of the collected waste without any prior treatment, according to Abrelpe, and it can end up in dumps, sanitary landfills or septic ditches, posing a risk to the environment and the population.

A problem also pointed out by Schalch, who says that, although there is legislation, “several municipalities do not have incineration, autoclave and microwave equipment” to properly manage this waste. According to the professor, “about 50% to 60% of Brazilian municipalities have dumps”, which signals the lack of sanitary landfills and the incorrect disposal of RSS.

World problem

“We are at a time when the health of the planet is threatened by the exaggerated volume of garbage, waste, both from health services and households”, says Karina, and says that it is “a very large volume, which the Earth does not have time to decompose at the same pace as it is being produced and discarded”. As it is a serious global problem, the teacher advises to minimize the generation of waste and to carry out selective collection.

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