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United Nations: Medical Waste Regime Recommended

(Sept. 19, 2011) As reported on September 14, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxic Waste, Calin Georgescu, is proposing that an international legal regime be developed to manage toxic medical waste. The goal would be to manage and dispose of the waste and promote use of disposal methods that are better environmentally than incineration. (Medical Waste Becoming an Increasing Problem, UN Rights Expert Says, UN NEWS CENTRE (Sept. 14, 2011).)

Medical waste includes infectious waste; anatomical and pathological waste; obsolete and expired chemical products, including pharmaceuticals; radioactive materials; and medical instruments. Many of these materials can cause health problems for staff, patients, disposal workers, and any other persons exposed to them. Georgescu pointed out that the problem is growing in developing nations, where the provision of health care is increasing but proper means of managing the toxic waste may not be in place. He added that “20 to 25 per cent of the total waste generated by health-care establishments is regarded as hazadous and may create a variety of health and environmental risks if not managed and disposed of in an appropriate manner.” (Id.)

The Rapporteur was particularly critical of incineration as a disposal method, stating:

In health-care establishments where hazardous medical waste is incinerated, 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. (Id.)

He advocated the promotion of autoclaving, which uses pressurized steam, as a less environmentally damaging method of disposal than incineration. (John Heilprin, UN Investigator Says Medical Waste Risks Ignored, AP (Sept. 14, 2011).)

Georgescu further noted that in some places, medical waste and household waste are mixed, spreading the hazards to a larger area. He completed a full report on the topic in July 2011 that was submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Adverse Effects of the Movement and Dumping of Toxic and Dangerous Products and Wastes on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, A/HRC/18/31 (July 4, 2011).)

The report recommended that countries without national legislation on the subject of medical waste should develop such laws, keeping in mind as basic principles that the laws should:

(a) provide a clear definition of health care waste and its categories;

(b) define clearly the duties and responsibilities of each actor involved in the health care waste management process;

(c) identify the national authority responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law and its enforcement; and

(d) impose appropriate penalties for contravention. (Id. at 19.)

Citing the risk to the human right to life and health, the report states that “[i]n spite of the risks that medical waste may pose to human health and the environment, the international community has not yet elaborated a comprehensive framework to regulate the sound handling, transport and disposal of hazardous waste generated by hospitals and health-care facilities.” (Id. at 14.) Among the additional recommendations in the report is the suggestion that developing nations be provided with financial and technical assistance to implement safe disposal methods. (Id. at 20.)