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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Medical waste threatens health of trash pickers

Medical waste threatens health of trash pickers

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3-medical-waste.jpg

HENG CHIVOAN

Bags of blood, syringes and body parts are frequently dumped in Phnom Penh landfills alongside household garbage, which is then manually sorted by scores of freelance recyclers.

About 600 or 700 people, some 10 percent of them children, scrape together livelihoods in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump, collecting recyclables while braving heaps of dangerous medical waste contaminated with such diseases as HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis.

“Bags of blood, human parts such as hands, legs, lungs, livers, whole babies and heads are found in that medical waste,” said Kuo Sineth, a 21-year-old gleaner.

“It is disgusting, but it is a means to life.”

Now, the Cambodian Red Cross plans to end the careless disposal of Phnom Penh medical waste, which has landed alongside regular refuse for the past three decades, by installing an incinerator at a new dumpsite near the Choeung Ek killing fields.

In the past, medical facilities have been encouraged to burn limbs and organs at pagoda crematoriums. But much of that and other contaminated waste still found its way into dumpsters, hauled off by the city’s trash collector, Cintri, to the Stung Meanchey dump.

“This seriously threatens public health, especially scavengers and people living near the dumpsite,” said municipal deputy governor Pa Socheatvong, who is also chief of the city’s Red Cross branch.

“We will use five trucks and some 30 workers to collect all medical waste in the city and destroy it on a hectare at the new Choeung Ek dumpsite,” he told the Post on July 3.

The incinerator, which cost $300,000 and is being shipped from Germany, is scheduled to arrive next month and begin burning in September.

“It is a humanitarian task, not for profit. We will ask all private clinics and dental clinics to make a contribution for this,” Socheatvong said, adding that monthly fees have not been set yet but that a reasonable charge would be passed on to private clinics and an even lower one to dental clinics, which produce less waste.

Dr Veng Thai, director of the municipal health department, said on July 1 that the Ministry of Health was preparing a draft law that would hold city medical facilities liable for separating and incinerating their waste.

He worried that one incinerator would be overwhelmed.

“We will go step by step because the incinerator can destroy only a ton of medical waste a day, while the city’s hospitals and clinics generate about two to three tons.”

And, Veng Thai added, “medical waste, when it is mixed with common waste, all will become medical waste.”

Currently, Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital has Phnom Phen’s only fully functioning waste incinerator. Calmette Hospital’s is broken and the National Pediatric Hospital’s incinerator only destroys blades and needles, according to that hospital’s deputy director, Samrith Sovann.

At Stung Meanchey, people voiced more immediate worries.

“I have never been concerned about injuring myself on medical waste like needles, but I am worried that I will not be able collect recyclable items. I have no money to buy rice to eat because my family is very poor with seven children,” said Chen Vuthy, 15, who can earn about 5,000 riel ($1.25) from the dumpsite a day.

“I have been stuck by needles a few times, but I haven’t seen anything happen to me.”

Kuo Sineth is more cautious. After 13 years living off the dump, he said he has made countless trips to the hospital after wounding himself on suspect scraps.

“Everytime I get injured by a needle, I get injected with [tetanus and hepatitis] vaccines ... which cost me 6,000 riels.”

That’s no small bite of Kuo Sineth’s daily earnings.

“I pay 3,000 riels to the truck driver so that I can pick through it alone,” he said. “From each truckload of medical waste, I can collect plastics, syringes, serum bags... worth about 30,000 riels to 40,000 riels.”

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