Hospitals can better protect public health by reducing the volume and toxicity of the wastes they produce, and by implementing a range of environmentally sound waste management and disposal options.
Globally, health care waste management is underfunded and poorly implemented. The combined toxic infectious and other hazardous properties of medical waste represent a significant environmental and public health threat. A recent literature review came to the conclusion that over half the world’s population is at risk from illness caused by healthcare waste and many poor waste treatment practices cause violation of fundamental human rights.
Unlike many other hazardous wastes, there is currently no international convention that directly covers medical waste management, so categorization systems vary from country to country. However, waste is usually categorized according to the risk it carries. The majority of medical waste – around 75 to 85 percent -- is similar to normal municipal waste, and of low risk unless burned.
The remainder is composed of more hazardous types of medical wastes, including infectious and sharps wastes, chemical and radioactive wastes, and hospital wastewaters.
Burning medical waste releases a number of hazardous gases and compounds, including hydrochloric acid, dioxins and furans, as well as the toxic metals lead, cadmium, and mercury. The disposal of biodegradable waste produces greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, which is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide.