Bio-medical waste: What lies in store?

Bio-medical waste: What lies in store?

Bio-medical waste: What lies in store?

The new draft Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules 2016, released recently by the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has an evolved framework for the management and handling of bio-medical waste in India.

The government hopes that the new rule would change the way of waste management in the country and thereby also prove instrumental in the ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission.

Bio-medical waste comprises of human and animal anatomical waste, along with treatment apparatus like needles and syringes, as well as  discarded medicines and cytotoxic drugs among other things that are discarded as waste from hospitals, nursing homes, pathological laboratories, blood bank, among others. Management of this waste is a challenge for policymakers and healthcare managers alike.

The new rules in general are a definitive improvement for better management of bio-medical waste. However, one specific aspect needs a special mention, and that is a clear effort by the government to reduce the exposure and negative health impacts due to emissions from bio-medical waste treatment process.

This is evident from two aspects of the new draft rules, a limit on the emissions of dioxins and furans, as well as more stringent emission standard for particulate matter; and a strong regulation on on-site opening of any new common bio-medical waste treatment and disposal facility (CBWTF).

Dioxins and furans are toxic/carcinogenic emissions and can seriously impact the health of humans and wildlife that are exposed to these emissions from the waste treatment facilities. These are generally not man-made substances and are listed as persistent organic pollutants (PoPs) in the Stockholm Convention ratified by India in 2006.

It is therefore essential for signatory countries to take adequate measures to eliminate and reduce where not possible to eliminate, all sources of dioxin and furans. These toxic emissions are released during the incineration of medical waste. There are different ways to handle waste, but incineration is imperative for some specific kind of bio-medical waste like bodily fluids and anatomical waste. As per some estimates, emissions from hazardous waste and biomedical waste incinerators in India contribute to about 64% of the estimated dioxins/furans released into the air.

The seriousness of impacts from bio-medical waste incineration can be gauged by the fact that there is an ongoing court case in the Delhi High Court on this matter. The residents of Sukhdev Vihar locality in Delhi a few years back filed a case in the Delhi High Court seeking closure of a bio-medical waste treatment plant established in their vicinity in 2006. The residents claim that the plant burns 12-15 tonnes of bio-medical waste exposing 10 lakhs residents around it to harmful emissions. On the other hand, the Delhi Pollution Control Board estimated that the total bio-medical waste generated in 2010 was 10.125 tonnes/day.

There are 10 incinerators across Delhi including the ones at three CBWTFs. To put things in perspective, according to the government there are a total of 198 CBWTF operational in India and 28 are under construction.

Some 21,870 Health Care Facilities (HCF) have their own treatment facilities and 1,31,837 HCFs are using the CBWTFs. As CBWTF, health care facilities and hospitals are generally located in populated areas, there is clearly a significant exposure of human beings living around the CBWTF that the new draft rules seek to reduce.

The earlier bio-medical waste management rules of 2011 prescribed no limits on the emissions of dioxins and furans. The new draft rules in this sense are a landmark, as these specify a limit to the emissions of these toxic substances.

The new rules have prescribed emission standards for existing incinerators for dioxins and furans to be 0.1 nano-grams toxic equivalency/ normal cubic meter within two years from the date of commencement of these rules.

Though these standards don’t appear to be as stringent as in some developed countries, these are still a significant improvement over existing practice.

In addition, the emission limit for particulate matter has also been lowered from 150 micro-grams / normal cubic meter (mg/nm3) to 50 mg/nm3, a significant reduction. In another important step related to the opening of new CBWTF, the rules state that no occupier shall establish on-site treatment and disposal facility, if a service of common bio-medical waste treatment facility is available at a distance of 75 km and in cases where this is viable it is imposed that the occupier must set up requisite biomedical waste treatment equipment like incinerator, autoclave or microwave, shredder prior to commencement of its operation, as per the authorisation given by the prescribed authority.

Air pollution a concern

The air pollution and health impacts debate in India has been dominated by emissions from large point sources like power plants as well as by emissions from the transportation sector. Toxic emissions from incineration of bio-medical waste is another source that the Indian civil society needs to be aware of.

Though in terms of the larger picture the contribution of bio-medical waste management in total local pollutant emissions could be low, the localised impacts could be high as dioxins and furans are highly toxic particles. The new draft rules are a very positive step taken by the government for addressing this concern and will ultimately benefit the millions living around bio-medical waste management facilities.

(The authors are researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, New Delhi)

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