It has been seven years since the Central Pollution Control Board came up with the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016. But many conservancy workers like Ramesh* and Sivaraman* come across bio-medical waste in Chennai while handling municipal waste often.
“There have been over 25 instances of illegal dumping of bio-medical waste in Chennai and its suburbs the last four years alone,” says V Pugalvendhan, a social activist who has been tracking and reporting bio-medical waste disposal violations since 2019.
Even in January 2023, there was an instance of bio-medical waste dumping in Adyar bund near Kolapakkam, which is a suburb towards the west of Chennai. Pugalvendhan raised a complaint regarding this but has seen no action from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).
Despite receiving complaints from individuals, directions by National Green Tribunal and media reports, the city still sees illegal bio-medical waste dumping.
Issues with collection of bio-medical waste in Chennai
Chennai has a bio-medical waste treatment capacity of 13,800 kg per day, as per the 2021 TNPCB Annual Report. There has been no augmentation in the biomedical waste handling capacity from 2020 despite the pandemic causing a spike in the generation of bio-medical waste. Around 10 to 11 tonnes of bio-medical waste was collected and treated in both years, as per the TNPCB reports.
However, it has been estimated that 60 tonnes of bio-medical waste are generated in Chennai. I
Therefore, around 16.6% of bio-medical waste is handled by treatment facilities, as per the law.
Also, bio-medical waste is not collected from every facility or person that generates it in Chennai. The waste is collected only from bedded hospitals and nursing homes, clinics, dispensaries, veterinary institutions, animal beds, pathological labs, blood banks, research institutions and AYUSH in Tamil Nadu, as per TNPCB.
However, bio-medical waste must also be collected from health or medical camps, vaccination camps, blood donation camps, and first aid rooms of schools, as per the rules.
The data put out by TNPCB has also come into question. Activists and residents contend that there is no exact data on how much bio-medical waste is generated in Chennai.
Prabhakaran Veeraarasu, an environmental engineer from Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental collective, says, “They do not directly weigh the bio-medical waste generated from each healthcare institution before collecting it. They only put out the estimate of the quantity of waste generated per bed.”
“Residences and outpatient doctor visits also generate bio-medical waste. Even used insulin needles are bio-medical waste which the public use in Chennai,” says Dr Nirmal Fredrick, Managing Director of Nirmals Eye Hospital. “Many people put their bio-medical waste along with dry waste, thus making proper disposal hard.”
TNPCB’s registered bio-medical waste facilities do not take waste from residences. Despite the civic body asking the public to put hazardous waste (sanitary pads, diapers, needles, etc.) separately, there is hardly much compliance on the ground.
Logistics of transporting bio-medical waste in Chennai
“Every healthcare facility needs to be registered with a PCB-recognised bio-medical waste provider to get a license,” says Dr Vinod, who has his own private clinic apart from working in Government Royapettah Hospital. “Even if a clinic generates 500 grams of bio-medical waste, they have to be registered.”
As per the CPCB rules, the bio-medical waste must be collected within 48 hours. Doctors say that the waste is segregated and kept for handing over to the common facilities. The waste is collected in lorries and transported.
In larger hospitals, the registered handlers collect the bio-medical waste regularly. But in smaller clinics, doctors say that they have to call the handler multiple times to collect the bio-medical waste. The handlers delay collection from smaller clinics.
“So, once or twice a week, the bio-medical waste handlers come and collect from smaller places in Chennai,” says Dr Vinod.
Echoing the same remark, Dr Nirmal says, “To save input costs, including fuel costs, the handlers collect from smaller clinics every week, which generate lesser bio-medical waste.”
From larger set-ups, more waste is generated. So, the handlers tend to go there more frequently.
“Sometimes, clinics and smaller establishments do not have space to store bio-medical waste,” says Dr Vinod. “Collection, storage and transportation of bio-medical waste are difficult.”
Infreqeny collection could push smaller facilities to dump the waste illegally.
“Larger institutions also violate the CPCB rules,” says Pugalvendhan.
Dumping of bio-medical waste near waterbodies in Chennai
There have been multiple instances of bio-medical waste found near waterbodies than in other places in Chennai and its suburbs.
“The water bodies in the suburbs of Chennai may not see a heavy footfall of people in their vicinities. Also, the lakes and other waterbodies on the outskirts are surrounded by thorny bushes. So, hospitals and other healthcare facilities are dumping their waste there,” says Pugalvendhan.
“This has been happening since 2019. During the water crisis at that time, many lakes ran dry. They have been used as bio-medical waste dumping grounds till today in Chennai,” he notes.
“Waterbodies near Mannivakkam, Kelambakkam, Mudichur, Otteri and Poonamallee High Road are some of the areas where bio-medical waste is dumped,” says Prabhakaran.
Defaulters of bio-medical waste make use of vacant grounds that have been turned into waste-dumping grounds also. “This can be seen near Chemabarambakkam lake,” says Pugalvendhan.
TNPCB’s poor handling of complaints
Officials say that they will close the facilities that violate the bio-medical waste rules, apart from snapping the electricity connection.
“When we hear about any illegal dumping, we go to the spot and inspect all the hospitals and healthcare facilities in the vicinity. If they do not have an agreement with the registered bio-medical waste handlers, we take action,” says a PCB official.
But activists like Pugalvendhan speak of inaction by the TNPCB.
In 2021, Pugalvendhan saw seven instances of bio-medical waste dumping near Mudichur lake. He had reported this to TNPCB with the necessary evidence. However, there has been no action to date.
“Till today, the authorities have not installed even a CCTV camera in the area,” he says.
In 2019, the bio-medical waste that was illegally dumped was burned after the complaint was given to the pollution control board authorities.
“They did not clear the waste, and authorities went to the extent of saying that there is no waste dumping in the spot. After a second complaint was raised, they cleaned the area,” says Pugalvendhan.
Pugalvendhan also claims that his personal contact details have been leaked to the violator against whom he had submitted a complaint to TNPCB. He has been receiving calls from the violator.
“Instead of taking action against the violator, they have leaked my contact to them,” says Pugalvendhan. “I have even received a call from the police that they have received a complaint that I am blackmailing a company.”
Improving compliance with bio-medical waste rules
Prabhakaran suggests some ways in which bio-medical waste can be disposed of properly.
- Decentralisation of treatment facilities will help smoothen logistics. They can be smaller centres and incineration of the waste will not cause many hazards if done on a smaller scale. When larger facilities incinerate waste, it will lead to localised pollution in the vicinity of the treatment facilities.
- Training GCC conservancy workers on handling bio-medical waste.
- Training healthcare staff to properly segregate and hand over bio-medical waste.
- Seasonal quantification of bio-medical waste generation to understand trends and support policy changes in public health.
Bio-medical waste causes environmental and health hazards which can have huge ramifications on the public and ecology of Chennai.
From Chennai’s poor track record in handling bio-medical waste, it is evident that changes must be brought about in both policy and enforcement. The creation of adequate infrastructure for processing bio-medical waste, improving logistics of collection and transportation and vigilant monitoring for violations and strict penalties for violators can all help reduce hazards caused by bio-medical waste in Chennai.
*names changed on request