Threat to health
The air is filled with putrid smell of waste strewn on the sidewalk, opposite Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
Liquid waste oozing out of the dustbin—doubtlessly toxic—creeps up. Flies, mosquitoes and insects of all descriptions are all over the place with crows and dogs burrowing into piles of garbage for food.
Osman, a cleaner of Dhaka City Corporation, is found scavenging there interminably, collecting used bandages, empty packets of saline and syringes. He keeps sifting through the garbage.
“I manage to make a little extra money by selling what I can collect from hospital waste, which helps me to an extent to make ends meet somehow, because it’s really difficult to manage with what the DCC pays me,” Osman says.
Asked if he knows about the risks of handling the toxic stuff, Osman says he does not care.
“I have to survive first.”
Cleaners of the hospital carry medical waste precariously to the dustbin placed opposite the hospital, facing serious health risks themselves.
Rag-pickers of every age rummage through the piles of mixed waste for used bandages, saline bags and syringes which are resold.
The same phenomenon occurs everywhere through the city, in waste dumps contiguous to hospital and clinics.
There are about a thousand hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centres in the capital, according to a research conducted by PRISM Bangladesh, an NGO dealing with waste management.
About 500 tonnes of medical waste is generated everyday by these health-service facilities and only half of it is disposed of.
About 20 percent of medical waste spreads viruses and bacteria-based diseases. Personnel responsible for disposal of these toxic matters run the risk of catching diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis, tetanus, and of developing chronic problems of the liver, eye and skin, experts say.
Dr Nazrul Islam, chairman of the Virology Department at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University says medical waste has to be disposed of in accordance with the prescribed ways as they pose serious threats to human health, if handled casually or unprofessionally.
“Hospital waste may be a very dangerous source of viruses and bacteria. These things should be handled with care,” he says.
A tired-looking Hekmat Ali, a man in his 50s, has been working for almost 36 years at the Chest Diseases Hospital in Mahakhali.
Ali coughs every once in a while, his eyes looking like they will bulge out.
Ali says he has been handling hospital waste for quite a long time. “I was very healthy when I started working here. But now I have diphtheria,” he says.
Another cleaner, Shafiqur Rahman, says doctors in this hospital use masks and gloves. “But when we ask for these, they say they’re not required.”
Cleaners of several hospitals in the city attend to their regular duties facing serious health risks. Zahed, another cleaner at a clinic, says there are about 40 cleaners at the clinic.
“We have to work for eight hours a day at a stretch. There’s no break for having a meal even during the duty hours for us,” he says, while requesting not to mention the name of the hospital.
Zahed comes from a village in Jamalpur district. Cleaners like him have to take out waste matters from operating theatres and patients’ rooms. They do so barehanded and no-one takes the minimum precaution of using gloves or masks for safety.
There are three incinerators at DMCH meant for disposing of waste and all of them have been out of order for the last three and a half years. An incinerator set up at the city’s Suhrawardi Hospital two years back is yet to be commissioned. The only incinerator in the private sector is at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, which is also out of order.
Masudur Rahman, the top official of the waste management wing of DCC, says PRISM Bangladesh, an NGO, has been handed the job of hospital waste disposal.
“Several private clinics and hospitals have sought the help of PRISM for the purpose for which they have to pay certain fees. The government hospitals, however, do not avail themselves of this assistance, as they have no budget allocation for waste management,” he says.
Torhit Kanti Biswas, working with PRISM Bangladesh, echoes the DCC official regarding government hospitals’ inability of accessing such services.
“Our waste management project kicked off in 2005 and now we manage waste matters generated by 256 clinics and hospitals in Dhaka,” he says.
Biswas, coordinator of the project, says an inter-ministerial committee is working towards bringing the state-run hospitals under their umbrella with regard to waste management.
The government’s environment department has, meanwhile, initiated a training programme at the DMCH for professionals in the medical waste management.
Steps were taken in 2001 to draft a law governing the disposal of such harmful waste matters. Provisions of Tk 50,000 financial penalty and cancellation of business licence for non-compliance were incorporated in the draft, which was not progressed any further.