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Unmasking a dangerous source of Covid-19 infections

March 16, 2021 | 04:47 pm PT
Can Van Luc Economist
The math is staggering, even for a single household. Since the advent of Covid-19, my six-member family has been regularly throwing away disposable face masks.

On average, we have thrown away two-three masks per day, or 90 a month. I have observed many other families in Hanoi do the same.

Those figures came to my mind last weekend when I was taking out the trash and had an impromptu chat with a worker of the Hanoi Urban Environment Company (URENCO).

"I have to use a broomstick or a stick to pick the face masks from afar. I do not dare to touch them with my hands, I am scared and worried about catching Covid-19," she said.

The woman, who usually cleans up the trash in my neighborhood in Vinh Phuc Ward, Ba Dinh District, said: "In pandemic times, other industries might lie low, but not the trash collection business," she said.

Ever since the pandemic set foot in Vietnam, the amount of garbage has increased, especially of disposable face masks, single-use plastic and several healthcare products like protective gears.

"They just simply throw them away and I am very afraid of getting infected."

I asked her why the company does not equip its workers with protective clothes and guidance on how to protect themselves when collecting trash and why it does not make people separate face masks from the rest of the trash.

She replied: "Because that would require different trash bins for different types of garbage along with different carts to collect and transfer each type of trash. Then the company will have to pay us higher salaries because all the process of sorting trash will create more work."

Hanoi has a population of around nine million and except for the group that is not subjected to mandatory face masks, which is children under two, others are using and dumping three-four million face masks per day, or 100-120 million a month. This is not including the volume of masks discharged by people visiting the city, either for business or other purposes.

A woman wears a disposable face mask as she has her body temperature checked at a train station in HCMC, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A woman wears a disposable face mask as she has her body temperature checked at a train station in HCMC, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

The problem of medical waste disposal is not exclusive to Hanoi or Vietnam; many countries on the globe are experiencing it.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment said last year that when Wuhan was still a Covid-19 epicenter, hospitals in the city discarded more than 240 tons of medical waste daily, six times higher than during pre-pandemic times.

Also last year, the Asian Development Bank said Manila, the capital of Philippines, is expected to produce 280 tons of medical waste per day, compared with an estimated 47 tons before the pandemic.

The World Health Organization said last March that to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the world needs 89 million surgical masks, 76 million gloves, and 30 million protective suits.

Since many countries are mandating the use of masks in all public areas, the number of masks used and discharged daily would rise to 129 billion per month across the world, not to mention a series of other medical treatment equipment, protective gears and tool for vaccination, American Environmental Science & Technology ACS Publications said last October.

In Vietnam, around 120,000 cubic meters of medical wastewater and 350-400 tons of solid medical waste was being discharged before the pandemic. This figure is estimated to have doubled or tripled since.

The pandemic has also brought to the forefront the urgency of plastic waste as a drastic environmental problem. Excessive amounts of disposable items have been used as part of pandemic prevention measures, including disposable masks, food and drink containers for the take-away services and plastic packaging for online shopping.

Last October, ACS had estimated that the amount of plastic waste had increased by 30 percent against the previous year.

Several studies have pointed out four major harmful effects of medical waste: the risk of spreading infectious disease because viruses, bacteria and fungi continue to multiply in the fibrous layers of masks or other medical waste; environmental pollution threat as medical masks are made of non-woven fabrics that make them quite durable and difficult to decompose in the natural environment - some nations have already listed those masks as hazardous medical waste that needs special disposable treatment; loss of urban aesthetics and reduction in the quality of life; and the surge in the amount of hazardous medical waste that creates greater challenges in ensuring safety for both humans and the environment.

In Vietnam, the treatment of waste that comes from medical facilities has been a rigorous process, but after one year of the pandemic, the country is yet to come up with specific guidelines on classifying, collecting and treating it.

Although the government has issued rules on waste management and sanitation in preventing and combating Covid-19 that require medical waste, including masks, to be collected and treated properly, we are yet to develop a separate process for collecting masks and handling violators. Masks are still mixed with various types of trash every day and in some horrifying cases, the collection of used masks has been recorded.

The World Health Organization advises that masks and gloves used in fighting the pandemic should be treated as strictly as any other medical waste and should not be recycled in any circumstance. China has recommended that people disinfect used masks with alcohol above 70 degrees or soap before throwing them away or reusing them.

At a personal level, my family has decided that we will throw our face masks in separate trash bags. I hope many others will do the same.

As a community, we should seriously recognize that masks littered along the side of the streets can be a source of Covid-19 infections. We have developed anti-pandemic strategies, so it is high time we work out an effective anti-medical-waste strategy, starting with disposable masks.

*Can Van Luc is an economist. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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