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Health-care waste

Health-care activities protect and restore health and save lives. But what about the waste and by-products they generate? Of the total amount of waste generated by health-care activities, about 85% is general, non-hazardous waste comparable to domestic waste. The remaining 15% is considered hazardous material that may be infectious, chemical or radioactive.

Key facts

  • Of the total amount of waste generated by health-care activities, about 85% is general, non-hazardous waste.
  • The remaining 15% is considered hazardous material that may be infectious, toxic or radioactive.
  • Every year an estimated 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, but not all of the needles and syringes are properly disposed of afterwards.
  • Open burning and incineration of health care wastes can, under some circumstances, result in the emission of dioxins, furans, and particulate matter.
  • Measures to ensure the safe and environmentally sound management of health care wastes can prevent adverse health and environmental impacts from such waste including the unintended release of chemical or biological hazards, including drug-resistant microorganisms, into the environment thus protecting the health of patients, health workers, and the general public.

Types of waste

Waste and by-products cover a diverse range of materials, as the following list illustrates:

  • Infectious waste: waste contaminated with blood and other bodily fluids (e.g. from discarded diagnostic samples),cultures and stocks of infectious agents from laboratory work (e.g. waste from autopsies and infected animals from laboratories), or waste from patients with infections (e.g. swabs, bandages and disposable medical devices);
  • Pathological waste: human tissues, organs or fluids, body parts and contaminated animal carcasses;
  • Chemical waste: for example solvents and reagents used for laboratory preparations, disinfectants, sterilants and heavy metals contained in medical devices (e.g. mercury in broken thermometers) and batteries;
  • Pharmaceutical waste: expired, unused and contaminated drugs and vaccines;
  • Cyctotoxic waste: waste containing substances with genotoxic properties (i.e. highly hazardous substances that are, mutagenic, teratogenic or carcinogenic), such as cytotoxic drugs used in cancer treatment and their metabolites;
  • Radioactive waste: such as products contaminated by radionuclides including radioactive diagnostic material or radiotherapeutic materials; and
  • Non-hazardous or general waste: waste that does not pose any particular biological, chemical, radioactive or physical hazard.

Health risks

Health-care waste contains potentially harmful microorganisms that can infect hospital patients, health workers and the general public. Other potential hazards may include drug-resistant microorganisms which spread from health facilities into the environment. Adverse health outcomes associated with health care waste and by-products also include:

  • sharps-inflicted injuries;
  • toxic exposure to pharmaceutical products, in particular, antibiotics and cytotoxic drugs released into the surrounding environment, and to substances such as mercury or dioxins, during the handling or incineration of health care wastes;
  • chemical burns arising in the context of disinfection, sterilization or waste treatment activities;
  • air pollution arising as a result of the release of particulate matter during medical waste incineration;
  • thermal injuries occurring in conjunction with open burning and the operation of medical waste incinerators; and
  • radiation burns.