Hesperian Health Guides

Health Problems from Health Care Waste

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

Any waste can cause health problems if not carefully disposed of. But health care waste can cause particular health problems such as:

  • hepatitis B and C, tetanus, HIV, and serious skin infections from used needles and sharp instruments.
  • allergies, skin rashes, eye irritations, asthma and other breathing difficulties from breathing in disinfectants, detergents, medicines, and laboratory chemicals.
  • antibiotic resistance. When a person handles antibiotic medicines often, they may no longer work for her.
  • cancer, respiratory problems, and other illnesses from wastes that release toxic chemicals such as dioxins into the environment when they are burned.

People most at risk of harm from health care waste are:

Homes and a woman and boy near a trash heap and a building with a smoking chimney.
A man putting a bottle in a sack at a dump site.
people who live near where health care waste is dumped or burned people who remove trash from health centers and those who collect, recycle, or sell trash from dump sites and landfills
A health care worker examines a patient in a ward.
workers and patients in health centers
Sangu’s story
Young woman with baby on her back picks up trash.

Sangu was born in a small village in India. After years of drought and crop failure, she and her mother and baby brother moved to the city in search of a better life. They lived with her mother’s family on a steep hill over a dump site. Other children showed Sangu how to pick out things to sell from the dump site. Before school every morning, she collected scraps of tin, glass bottles, plastic bags, and other things. Sangu used the money she made to buy lunch and hot tea after school.

Life was hard in the city, and Sangu’s mother was soon working away from the house all day. Sangu had to take care of her baby brother and could no longer go to school. Every day she spent many hours sorting through garbage at the dump with her brother in a sling on her back.

Sometimes Sangu found bloody bandages, needles, and other hospital waste mixed in with the rest of the trash. Sangu’s thin sandals did not protect her from sharp things in the trash. Broken glass and rusted metal would sometimes cut her feet and ankles. One day a syringe needle pierced her sandal and went right into her foot. Soon after, Sangu got very sick with fever, tiredness, and a swollen sore throat.

Sangu felt better after some weeks. But several months later she began to feel sick again. She was tired all the time, had fevers and sores in her mouth, lost her appetite, and grew very thin. Her mother and family worried about her, but they had no money to take her to a doctor. Finally, her mother borrowed money from a cousin and took Sangu to the health center. The doctor listened to Sangu’s story, examined her, and then took some blood for a blood test.

The next day, they returned to the clinic and the doctor told Sangu’s mother that Sangu had HIV. She needed medicine, but her family had no money to take her to the hospital where she could get it and the attention she needed. With great sadness, Sangu’s mother took her home. Sangu rested in bed, but everyone knew she would not recover. A few months later, Sangu died.

Why did Sangu die?

Sangu died from AIDS after she was infected by stepping on a contaminated syringe needle.

Her illness and death were caused by an environmental problem: poor disposal of health care waste; and a social problem: poverty.

What could have prevented Sangu’s death?

Woman asks questions.

Because many different social problems contribute to poverty, poverty can be difficult to solve. These questions show some of the problems:

  • Why was Sangu not in school?
  • Why did Sangu need to collect waste to earn money?
  • Why did Sangu not have good shoes to protect her feet?
  • Why was she not able to get health care and medicine?

Thin shoes, no money to get medicine or health care, and a desperate need to earn money, combined with the malnutrition and other problems that are a part of poverty are some of the answers to these questions. Finding solutions to social problems like these may take a long time.

A woman holding her head sits outside a shack.
Health care waste affects many people, including those too poor to go to a health center.

The environmental problem may be easier to solve in the short term. We can begin by asking these questions:

  • Why was harmful health care waste mixed in with other trash that could be recycled or reused?
  • Why was so much harmful waste dumped in the open, rather than disposed of safely?

Responsible management of health care waste can improve living conditions for everyone, especially those forced by poverty to live on scraps.