Safe management of wastes from health-care activities

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3.1.4

Hazar

ds from chemical and pharmaceutical waste

Many of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals used in health care are hazardous. They are commonly present in small

quantities in health-care waste, whereas larger quantities may be found when unwanted or outdated chemicals

and pharmaceuticals are sent for disposal. Chemical wastes may cause intoxication, either by acute or chronic

exposure, or physical injuries – the most common being chemical burns. Intoxication can result from absorption

of a chemical or pharmaceutical through the skin or the mucous membranes, or from inhalation or ingestion.

Injuries to the skin, the eyes or the mucous membranes of the airways can occur by contact with flammable,

corrosive or reactive chemicals (e.g. formaldehyde and other volatile substances).

Laboratory staff are regularly exposed to dozens of chemicals during the course of their work, especially in specialist

and research hospitals.

The hazardous properties most relevant to wastes from health care are as follows:

Toxic. Most chemicals are toxic at some level of exposure. Fumes, dusts and vapours from toxic materials can

be especially harmful because they can be inhaled and pass quickly from the lungs into the blood, permitting

rapid circulation throughout the body.

Corrosive. Strong acids and alkali bases can corrode completely through other substances, including clothing.

If splashed on the skin or eyes, they can cause serious chemical burns and permanent injury. Some of these also

break down into poisonous gases, which further increase their hazardousness.

Explosive. Some materials can explode when exposed to heat or flame, notably flammable liquids when ignited

in confined spaces, and the uncontrolled release of compressed gases.

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