Hesperian Health Guides

The Problem of Burning Waste

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 19: Health Care Waste > The Problem of Burning Waste

To destroy health care waste and the germs it carries, many clinics and hospitals burn it in an incinerator (an enclosed, high-heat fire). Burning health care waste seems like an easy solution because different kinds of waste can be collected and simply thrown into the incinerator. But burning waste this way creates more health problems than it solves.

Burning waste, either in an open fire or an incinerator, releases toxic chemicals into the air as smoke, and into the soil and groundwater as ashes. Wastes containing mercury, lead, and other heavy metals release these poisons into the environment when they are burned.

For every 3 bags of waste burned,
Illustration of the below: A man puts a bag of trash into an incinerator and then shovels ash into a bag marked "Toxic.'
1 bag of toxic ash is produced, and other toxic chemicals go into the air, soil, and water.

Plastics used to make IV and blood bags, tubes, and some syringes produce highly toxic chemicals called dioxins and furans when they are burned. These chemicals have no color or smell and can cause cancer, make both women and men infertile (unable to make a baby), and lead to other serious health problems (see Chapter 16 and Chapter 20).

Sometimes incinerators do not burn hot enough or long enough to burn waste completely. Some incinerators are built to handle particular wastes, such as immunization wastes, but end up being used to burn medicines, pesticides, and other toxic materials.

Often, the first steps in safely handling health care waste are to separate materials that can be recycled or reused, then to disinfect waste that carries harmful germs. By using safer alternatives to incineration, the health worker’s oath to “do no harm” can be applied even to the difficult task of getting rid of waste.