Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 19: Health Care Waste

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 19: Health Care Waste

In a hospital ward, a health worker drops a needle into a box labelled "sharps."

Health workers do their best to help people stay healthy. But if waste from health care is not handled safely, it can spread illness to the health workers and the surrounding community.

Health care waste includes waste from clinics, hospitals, laboratories, blood banks, dental clinics, birth centers and animal hospitals. It also includes waste from vaccination programs (also called immunization campaigns) and medical aid missions, and waste produced from caring for the sick at home.

Most waste from health care is ordinary waste like paper, cardboard, and food scraps. But some health care waste is contaminated with blood or body fluids that may carry harmful germs and spread disease. Used needles and other sharp tools (sharps) can cause injury and spread disease. Some health care waste, such as plastics, contain toxic chemicals. When waste that carries harmful germs or toxic chemicals is mixed with ordinary waste, the mixed waste becomes a threat to all who handle it. That is why separation of waste in the place where it is created is so important.

Safe handling of health care waste uses the same basic methods used to dispose of other solid wastes. But wastes contaminated with body fluids and germs must be disinfected and disposed of in ways that protect the health of people and the environment.