Hesperian Health Guides

Poorly Managed and Mixed Waste

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 18: Solid Waste: Turning a Health Risk into a Resource > Poorly Managed and Mixed Waste

Fumes waft from a trash heap.
Some waste can be reused or recycled. Some kinds of waste take a long time to decay. Other kinds never go away!

When waste piles up or is scattered around our communities, it is ugly, smelly, unpleasant and bad for health. When wastes are not separated, the amount of waste and the problems it causes are bigger than they need to be. When harmful wastes, such as old batteries and health care wastes, are mixed with wastes like paper and food scraps, the mixture becomes even more difficult and dangerous to deal with.

When it is not properly disposed of, waste causes health problems.

  • Open piles of trash breed rats, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and other insects that carry diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, typhus, and others.
  • Dump sites and trash heaps breed germs. These can infect children who play there and people who pick through the waste for things to use or sell. Germs in trash can cause health problems such as diarrhea and cholera, scabies, tetanus, fungus, and other skin and eye infections.
  • Trash clogs waterways and drainage channels causing water to back up. This can create stagnant pools that allow insects to breed and cause floods when it rains. Flooded drainage channels that carry human or animal feces also contaminate drinking water supplies and soil.
  • When large piles of waste collapse they harm people who work with the waste or live nearby.
  • Toxic chemicals in waste seep into water sources and soil, poisoning people for many years. Sometimes waste piles containing toxic materials explode or catch fire.
  • When plastics and other toxic wastes are burned in the open or in incinerators, harmful chemicals are released into the air, and toxic ash pollutes soil and water. In the short term, these toxic chemicals cause chest infections, cough, nausea, vomiting, and eye infections. Over time, they cause chronic illnesses such as cancer and birth defects.

To treat the health problems caused by waste, see Where There Is No Doctor or another general health care book. Wearing gloves, face masks, and boots or closed shoes can prevent many of the health problems caused by working with solid waste. (See “Health and safety for waste collectors” and Protective Clothing and Equipment.)