A newly-constructed medical waste incinerator is up and running at the Choeung Ek dumpsite in Phnom Penh, but the majority of state- and privately-owned clinics are not using it, as they complain about its steep fees, officials said Tuesday.
Jointly funded by the Phnom Penh branch of the Cambodian Red Cross and private shareholders, the incinerator has been operating for about two months, said Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong, and burning the roughly three metric tons of medical waste produced each day at the capital’s clinics and hospitals.
But, he said, only 20 percent of the city’s 1,200 health facilities are making use of the incinerator.
He said the fee for the service is $1 per kg and that clinics currently pay from $30 to $500 a load, depending on the size. Pa Socheatvong added that the incinerator was being run as a nonprofit venture and the private investors, who are honorary members of the Cambodian Red Cross, have agreed to donate any revenue to the CRC once expenses are recouped from its construction.
“We built this medical waste incinerator as a not-for-profit,” he said, adding that health facilities are required by the Ministry of Health to separate and destroy medical waste.
But Muong Tito, the Secretary-General for the Association of Private Hospitals of Cambodia, said the fees are simply too costly. He estimated $50 a month or less was a more reasonable price and said he felt pressure from those calling the kiln a nonprofit venture.
“I will never apply and join in the services because some individuals are using the Red Cross’ name to pressure us to pay for services run by an individual interest,” said Muong Tito, who is also director of Panhasak Poly Clinic in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao commune.
The Cambodian Red Cross is headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany.
Men Neary Sopheak, director of CRC’s communication department, declined to comment as to whether the CRC name was being used to pressure clinics into using the new incinerator and referred questions to Pa Socheatvong.
Pa Socheatvong denied that clinics were being pressured or that the CRC name was being used to sign clinics up to use the incinerator.
He added that the incinerator fee was set after consulting with the World Health Organization and local NGOs, and by studying prices for similar services in Vietnam.
The $560,000 incinerator can destroy between 100 and 150 kg of medical trash per hour but it also guzzles 40 liters of diesel during the same time period, municipal health department Director Veng Thai said. Besides the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals, no other health facility operates a fully functioning waste incinerator, he said.
The price, he added, was reasonable for clinics and hospitals.
“There is no way that we can earn profit,” Veng Thai said. “Instead we are concerned that we will face a loss.”
When not properly disposed in an incinerator, medical waste can pose a serious health risk to people and the environment, said Dr Gunther Hintz, the president of the health NGO Medicorps. He said bags can leak unused medication or bacterial deposits into the ground, which can contaminate the water supply.
“Many of these waste sites are not sealed,” Hintz said Tuesday by telephone. “It’s very dangerous to leave any medication outside.”
He said most of the unburned waste ends up at the Stung Meanchey dump, where scavengers sometimes reuse or resell the discarded medicine and needles. The scavengers can also suffer cuts from the waste.
Veng Thai agreed that a number of clinics were ignoring the orders of the Health Ministry and continuing to “dump such wastes along Phnom Penh streets and the Stung Meanchey dumpsite.”
(Additional reporting by Frank Radosevich)