Safety and security over biological waste

May 31 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Rocio Escauriaza Leal, Madrid

Inadequate biological waste management constitutes a risk that could lead to proliferation of infectious material and accidental outbreaks. International instruments exist to counter these dangers: the Basel Convention aims to limit and regulate hazardous wastes to minimize possible impacts on human and animal health as well as the environment. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) necessitates the adoption of biosecurity measures – including biological waste management – to prevent proliferation of dual use material. The adoption by countries of effective measures to securely manage biological waste would help implementation of both international agreements and make progress towards the aims they promote.

Biological waste consists of solids, liquids and sharp objects infected with biological agents; this type of waste is generated in hospitals and health care facilities in the course of patient treatment (biomedical waste); and in laboratories.

The 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal currently counts 179 States Parties. Article 4 (4) of the treaty requires States Parties to adopt appropriate legal and administrative measures to implement the convention. Obligations include the criminalization of the illicit trafficking of hazardous wastes; establishing controls over the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes; measures to reduce the generation of hazardous wastes to a minimum; and measures ensuring the availability of adequate disposal facilities and training of personnel. ‘Infectious waste’ is included in the definition of ‘hazardous wastes’ provided by this international agreement.

The BWC touches on the issue of biological waste management from the proliferation angle.  The BWC doesn’t specifically mention biological waste, but it necessitates the adoption of preventive measures, such as security and accountability measures over dual-use biological materials that could be used to develop biological weapons.

When looking into national measures on biosafety and biosecurity, VERTIC found that 41 out of 137 countries surveyed had adopted some biological waste management legislative measures.

Appropriate and effective biological waste management requires the adoption and enforcement of a legislative framework and national policies on the handling and disposal of infectious waste. Additionally, facilities producing and disposing of biological waste should have internal rules or manuals.

Effective handling procedures could include the separation, labelling, packaging and storage of waste in a safe and secure manner. Additionally it could include transporting the generated waste to other facilities with the necessary equipment to safely dispose of it. Exporting waste to other countries is also a possibility and therefore transfer controls over exports/imports and standards for safe handling are necessary—and chain of custody must be ensured.

Different disposal techniques to ensure effective inactivation of the biological agents could include autoclaving (steam sterilization), the use of chemical disinfectants and incinerators.

Providing adequate equipment and training of personnel involved in the different stages of the generation, handling and disposal of biological waste is an essential component of any efficient biological waste management scheme. Public awareness of the risks that this type of waste represent to health is also necessary.

Inadequate handling of biological waste could lead to a disease outbreak. That was the case in the 2009 Hepatitis B outbreak in Gujarat, India where doctors were accused of re-using infected syringes; and the SARS outbreak in Taiwan in late 2003, where waste management procedures in a laboratory were not properly followed. Sewage disposal, lack of separation of biological waste and dumping in landfills are not infrequent practices.

Proliferation of this type of material could also happen if storage facilities and containers are not secured since the biologically infected material could be weaponized and used for criminal purposes.

Governments should establish a comprehensive legal framework to ensure that biological waste is managed safely and securely. Setting up an effective biological waste management scheme can be expensive. But the potential severity of the consequences of mismanagement means that risk analysis should be carried out and appropriate resources allocated to reduce the possibility of accidental outbreaks and proliferation of this sensitive material.

Last changed: May 31 2012 at 5:36 PM