Medical Waste a Cruel Hazard for Child Scavengers

The 13-year-old girl peered into the bag containing dozens of used sy­ringes, blood-splattered tissues and vials filled with yellow and red li­quids—the medical waste of Phnom Penh hospitals.

Chea Ry was hunting for scrap metal amid the toxic contents.

“In those bags I have seen ba­bies, one time I saw two babies,” she said amid the smoking piles of trash at the municipal dumpsite in Meanchey district.

“Once I saw a human heart,” she added.

Other scavengers had their own stories about the content of the white plastic bags.

“I scavenged the medical waste and one time I found a body, an adult,” said Seung Dy, 25. “We didn’t notify the police, we just bulldozed it over and buried it.”

Chea Ry, who attends primary school in the morning before digging at the dump in Stung Mean­chey commune in the afternoon, takes precautions.

“We don’t touch that stuff, we know it is contagious,” she said.

Hospital administrators and the nation’s top health and environmental officials said this week that proper management of medical waste remains a serious problem in Cambodia, especially due to poor regulation of private clinics.

“It’s a huge problem in the country, especially with a lot of the small clinics and health centers,” said Jon Morgan, the director of Siem Reap’s Angkor Hospital for Children.

“A lot of these places just toss the stuff right out on the street,” he said, adding that all the major hospitals in Cambodia have incinerators with which to dispose of their waste.

“We use the incinerator for all our septic waste, things such as needles, used syringes and bandages,” said Jean Baptiste Du­forcq, the medical director of Calmette Hospital. “But with the private clinics, it’s very difficult to know how they get rid of their waste.”

At one of the nation’s biggest hos­­pitals, the Khmer-Soviet Friend­­­ship Hospital in Phnom Penh, the on-site incinerator has been broken since 1991, Deputy Di­­­rector Bou Eap said.

Most of the time, biological waste is sent to the city crematorium, he said.

“In any Cambodian hospital, in­cluding ours, we were directed to sep­arate biological waste and med­ical waste,” Bou Eap said.

“But…hospital workers and pa­tients will throw food waste, glass, and plastic intravenous bottles all in one trash bin,” he said.

“Sometimes a little amount of hu­man tissue, or stuff from the maternity hall, was buried near the root of a tree in the hospital backyard,” he added.

“You know, these things provide fertility like burying the body of a dead dog beneath a tree.”

The Phnom Penh Municipality is not involved in separating medical waste from regular garbage, said Cheik Ang, the deputy director of the municipal environment department.

“We are in the awareness-making phase and educating people about recycling,” he said. “The next step in the near future, we will start sorting waste.”

Health Minister Nuth Sokhom said Wednesday that most of the dangerous waste at Stung Mean­chey is from private clinics.

“In the state-owned hospitals and health clinics, we have the prin­ciple to control medical waste management but there are a number of loopholes and challenges,” he said. “We don’t have the so­phis­ticated equipment as in other rich countries to improve waste man­agement.”

“We will look closely at this is­sue,” he said, adding that a private South Korean firm has ap­proached his ministry about helping to manage medical waste in Cam­bodia.

Environment Minister Mok Mareth said his ministry is watching the hazardous waste problem.

“We have better control than before but there could be some dumping of septic waste that people hid from our officials,” he said.

“If we know about such dumping, we will take action and administer punishment,” he said.

 (Additional reporting by Erik Wasson and David McFadden)


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