According to a new report, a single Ebola patient generates about eight 55-gallon barrels — or 440 gallons — of medical waste each day.
Though such an enormous amount of medical waste might seem surprising, it makes sense considering just how careful health care practitioners have to be when treating an Ebola patient. Anything and everything that comes into contact with them has to be disposed of. This includes the patient’s bodily fluids, anything those fluids touched, caregivers’ gloves, masks, booties, the patient’s bedding, mattresses and more.
Surprisingly, the sheer volume of medical waste isn’t even the biggest problem. The most troubling matter is ensuring the contaminated materials are properly disposed of. Dealing with the pathogen-saturated debris without causing any more harm is not just a challenge, it’s a logistical nightmare for any medical facility in the United States that may be preparing to ward off the lethal West African virus.
Luckily, the virus can’t survive temperatures in excess of 1,500 degrees, pressurized steaming, or bleach. What’s being recommended now as the best way to eliminate the massive amount of medical waste produced by an Ebola patient is incineration.
“The CDC recommends incineration or autoclaving to treat Ebola contaminated waste. The Ebola virus is not a difficult virus to kill. Compared to other organisms, it is easy to kill with heat or even household bleach for surface cleaning. Ebola contaminants that may contaminate inanimate objects like mattresses, TVs, and other bulky items require special handling,” says Joe Delloiacovo, Executive Vice President of Medassure Services. “Most of the generated waste is personnel protective gear such as gloves, gowns and other PPE. These waste items must be packaged safely according to special DOT procedures and carried away from the patient containment are area and disposed of properly.”
While burning may eliminate the threat of Ebola contamination, it generates even more waste, and contributes to pollution, which in turn exacerbates problems such as global climate change.
However, to some, the threat of Ebola far outweighs any long-term repercussion that may or may not come as a result of incineration.
“There’s no pollutant that’s going to come out of a waste incinerator that’s more dangerous than the Ebola virus,” said Allen Hershkowitz, National Resources Defense Council senior scientist. “When you’re dealing with pathogenic and biological hazards, sometimes the safest thing to do is combustion.”