We all know that medical waste causes disease. Because it is a by-product of the provision of health care, it contains high amounts of disease-causing microorganisms (called pathogens) compared to household waste. These pathogens make medical waste very dangerous when released it is into the environment.
Studies from the World Health Organization (WHO) report on specific infections caused by the improper disposal of medical waste into the environment. Improper disposal can lead to:
- Parasitic Infections
Some types of medical waste, particularly waste from diagnostic laboratories that regularly test for parasitic infections, are positive for parasites. Labs generally incubate body fluids to test for the presence of parasites, and then dispose of the used culture dishes as medical waste. Some of the parasites can still thrive in the waste and cause infection.
- Infection of the Airways and Lungs
Improperly stored and disposed medical waste can release airborne aerosols that may contain pathogens, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and other viruses that can cause lung infections like influenza, tuberculosis and pneumonia.
There is also the possibility of contracting skin infections from medical waste — like anthrax. Though anthrax cases are extremely rare, there are anthrax vaccine-producing labs that may generate anthrax-contaminated medical waste. Anthrax spores are hardy and highly infectious, so the release of tainted medical waste into the environment can spur potential infection.
Candida infection or candidiasis is a disease caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Candida albicans remains a significant disease associated with prolonged hospital confinement, so untreated medical waste may contain significant amounts of this particular pathogen.
Candidiasis can be life-threatening to the elderly, pregnant mothers, small children, and people with weakened immune systems.
Meningitis is a serious medical condition caused by inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be viral or bacterial, and both forms are transmissible via body fluids. Medical waste may contains pathogens that can transmit meningitis.
- Diseases from Improperly Disposed Waste with Traces of Vaccines
Vaccines protect us from a multitude of diseases. Several vaccines are made from attenuated pathogens, which are pathogens whose virulence is reduced, but is still live, so they possess the potential to cause disease.
Some examples of attenuated vaccines include measles, mumps, and certain types of influenza, chicken pox and polio vaccines. Untreated medical waste with traces of vaccines with these pathogens may result in infection.
Bacteremia is a life-threatening infection. Bacteremia infection occurs when bacteria are present in the bloodstream, where it can easily infect other organs and cause inflammation. A particular type of medical waste, sharps, can introduce pathogens into the bloodstream that may result in bacteremia.
- Infections of Reproductive Organs
Medical waste can be contaminated with genital secretions that may harbor pathogens that can cause sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Some easily transmissible STIs include herpes, human papilloma virus, and syphilis; these STIs can enter the body via minor breaks in the skin.
- HIV and Hepatitis B and C Viruses
Medical waste can contain sharps that may contain blood contaminated with viruses that cause AIDS, Hepatitis B and C.
Puncture injuries from contaminated sharps can result in HIV and hepatitis B and C infections, which is a major reason why sharps are disposed of in rigid, sealed and clearly marked containers. Health workers, waste collectors and scavengers are vulnerable to puncture injuries from sharps, and are therefore at risk for these blood-borne infections.
- Hemorrhagic Fevers
Ebola, Lassa and Marburg disease are transmitted by viruses that cause violent fevers and internal hemorrhaging. (All of these conditions are found in Africa and/or small areas of Europe.) Because people infected with these very serious viruses are treated in hospitals, the viruses can be present in medical waste.