UMERKOT, Dec 22: The Taluka Hospital Umerkot does not have any mechanism for disposing of hospital waste, it was learnt on Saturday.

The medical superintendent of Taluka Hospital Umerkot told Dawn said that sanitary workers sold used syringes, drips and other used disposable plastic equipment to junk dealers. The hospital did not own an incinerator and did not have funds to buy one, he added.In fact, a cursory survey by Dawn revealed that the same situation obtained in all 20 government or private hospitals in Umerkot district.

The district health officer, Abdul Aziz Kunbhar, confirmed that none of the hospitals had a waste management committee.

The official of Malir Medical Centre, Roop Medical Centre and other maternity homes also told Dawn that they had no mechanism for the disposal of medical waste which was dumped in municipal dustbins while the sanitary staff sold used equipment.

According to the Sindh vice president of the Pakistan Paramedical Staff Association, Doongerpuri Gosowami, the only hospital incinerator in all of Sindh province was in Karachi and other hospitals and healthcare centres were asked to transport medical waste there if they wanted it to be incinerated.

He said that hospital waste was thrown out in heaps in the middle of poor settlements, among people who were already economically, socially and medically vulnerable. Also, he said, the sanitary staff who dealt with the waste did not have any protective gear or any awareness of the diseases they might be exposed to.

The executive director of a local NGO, Allah Bux, said that sanitary workers earned Rs45 per kilogramme for syringes and Rs2 for every used drip they sold.

He said that the most dangerous waste item was syringes. “Used syringes harbour lethal diseases and they can be transferred to anyone who handles them if the needles prick fingers of the handler,” he said. Burning of plastic waste produced a chemical dioxin which caused cancer, birth defects, paralysis, hearing defects and behavioural problems in infants, he added.

According to Shahid Lutfi, an environmental consultant for the World Bank, rag-pickers picked up anything worth selling from the garbage. He said that syringes, infusion tubes and blood bags were among the most collected items by rag-pickers and sanitary workers who then sold them to plastic recycling factories. Pharmaceutical companies also bought used syringes, urine bags, drips and glass vials from waste sellers, he said, adding that selling hazardous hospital waste was a criminal offence under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997.

Social activist Ali Akbar Rahimoon called for a crackdown on and stiff penalties for people who sold and bought hospital waste. He said that the reuse of infected waste not only polluted the environment but also put economic strain on society as people used their meagre savings to get treatment.