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Where does medical waste go? What happens to diagnostic devices after they have been used? Perhaps this thought hasn't even crossed your mind. The question of medical pollution, however, is gaining more attention around the world.
Over the past several years, researchers have been tirelessly working to find ways to bring better diagnostic tools to third world and developing countries. In Canada, we are fortunate to have a variety of options available to us when we become ill. A quick visit to a family doctor, clinic or hospital usually results in a quick diagnosis and the road to treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, this luxury is not available to everyone.
Did you know?
In 2008, there were 247 million reported cases of malaria worldwide and nearly one million deaths, mostly among children living in Africa. One child dies every 45 seconds of malaria in Africa and the disease accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths. Most forms of malaria are treatable with early diagnosis and treatment.
(April 2010, fact sheet N°94, Malaria, World Health Organization)
To deal with the issue of diagnostic accessibility, researchers have created "labs on a chip," also commonly known as medical point-of-care tests (POCTs). They are small, efficient, inexpensive and portable devices that can be carried to remote areas to diagnose a wide array of diseases and conditions. In 2009, POCTs were used for nearly 100 million HIV tests, 70 million malaria tests and 3 million syphilis tests in the developing world alone.
Despite improvements to diagnostic capabilities, there is an unfortunate downside to these little "life savers," they begin to accumulate and become an environmental problem as they sit waiting to be safely handled and disposed of. Medical waste should be burned when it poses a biohazard, or otherwise buried in a landfill.
Medical waste has become so troublesome in Africa, that it stemmed the creation of a special international collaboration to find ways to deal with the problem. The goal of this effort is to develop alternative designs and materials for POCTs with lower social and environmental costs - biodegradable devices that would blend into the earth safely rather than clutter its surface. Fortunately, Canadian researchers already have a good lead on the issue and have been developing biodegradable plastics from the starch of a hybrid grain found here in Canada - triticale. Similarly, developing countries could use scratch from their own indigenous plants to manufacture biodegradable thermoplastics to produce more eco-friendly diagnostic devices.
Environmental benefits of biodegradable plastics:
- Composts without releasing dangerous toxins into the environment, usually breaking down within seven days.
- Can be produced on industrial scale using same machines as regular petroleum-based plastics, but at much lower temperatures and more economically.
- Can be used for a variety of other medical applications such as disposable syringes or even medical packaging.
These new devices will provide a win-win situation — better diagnostic delivery for patients throughout the world, and a healthier environmental outcome for the planet.