MEGAN POWER and JOCELYN MAKER
South Africa is in the grip of a massive medical waste crisis as warehouses and other sites are illegally crammed with tons of rotting body parts and other highly hazardous hospital waste.
Today the Sunday Times exposes one such warehouse, in Germiston, Gauteng — a few hundred metres from homes and nursery schools.
It is filled with decaying human tissue, blood- and pus- soaked bandages, used needles, vials, syringes, and discarded HIV-test kits from about 200 state hospitals — some as far away as Limpopo .
Conditions in this months-old fly-infested time bomb are ripe for the explosion of disease- causing micro-organisms .
On Thursday, the Sunday Times called the Green Scorpions — the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s inspectors — to the scene.
In another shock discovery at the site that day, more than 20 wheelie bins containing waste, including scores of laboratory specimens growing in petri dishes, had been left baking in the sun next to a small snack- manufacturing plant.
Within an hour, the man responsible for the stockpile, the owner of Buhle Waste and Tshumisano Waste, Dr David Sekete, was barred from storing further waste and given 48 hours to have the stockpile incinerated.
Because of the volume and risks involved, the department gave emergency permission for some of the stash to be buried at a hazardous-waste landfill site in Gauteng.
The Germiston warehouse is just one of 12 in five provinces suspected to be illegally filled with waste from private and government hospitals.
The discovery this week of the Germiston warehouse has exposed a cut-throat waste disposal industry in chaos.
Most companies cannot get rid of their waste as there are only eight incinerators in the country .
The Sunday Times has established that:
• Companies have to refrigerate anatomical waste for weeks while they wait for the use of an incinerator;
• Many send loaded trucks across the country to get to incinerators that can accommodate them, while others illegally dump their waste on vacant land to save money;
• Owners of some incinerator plants are battling backlogs of waste, unable to cope with the volumes;
• Some incinerator owners charge companies high prices, encouraging waste companies to stash or dump their waste;
• At least one major player in the waste industry is under investigation for disposal-site violations; and
• More than 1000 illegal incinerators at hospitals are still being used, while private incinerators waiting for permits fire up at night to avoid detection.
One incinerator, Aid Safe, part-owned by Sekete and Springbok rugby player Johan le Roux, was re-opened in October after it had been shut down for months by authorities who found blood-contaminated water run-off, disintegrating waste containers, an overloaded incinerator billowing black smoke and permit violations.
A criminal prosecution is due to start next month .
Sekete said he had since fired several managers, who are taking legal action against him.
The department’s deputy director-general for environmental quality and protection, Joanne Yawitch, said the industry was in “crisis”.
“There’s a serious problem, but we’re not sure what is causing it,” she said.
Last month the department commissioned an assessment of waste sites, looking at capacity, volume and costs.
“It’s a cut-throat industry … Something is very wrong with this industry. The stockpile is symptomatic of a bigger problem,” Yawitch said.
The department’s chief director of regulatory services, Sonnyboy Bapela, said the department had been aware of Sekete’s stockpiling before the Sunday Times exposé, and he had been given two months — until November 30 — to sort out the problem.
When the Green Scorpions were taken to the site by the newspaper one day ahead of the deadline this week, “they realised nothing had been done”, Bapela said. He said the department had turned down Sekete’s request to bury the waste as that was always a “last resort” for medical waste.
“We weren’t convinced there was a capacity problem,” Bapela said, claiming that Sekete had refused to take the waste to his competitor, EnviroServ, which had capacity to spare.
Independent waste scientist Ray Lombard said: “What was found this week is horrifying … It’s a direct result of too much waste and inadequate treatment capacity.”
Lombard, a former president of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa, said the refusal by authorities to recognise the crisis, long delays in processing permits for new disposal sites and technology, and the competitive behaviour of operators compounded the problem.
Tomorrow the massive clean-up of the Germiston chamber of horrors will begin.
The Sunday Times also found widespread dumping of medical waste on privately owned land in Benoni. The mounds of highly hazardous medical waste are littered with half-burnt Buhle and Thumisano waste containers. Thousands of old needles, syringes, drips, medicine vials and filthy bandages are still clearly visible.
Sekete claimed yesterday that he was a victim of a sabotage. He denied the waste at the Benoni site was his, saying at least five of his competitors used his containers.
“I know my warehouse is a 100% high health risk and I feel bad about this.”
He said he had warned Environmental Affairs and the Department of Health as far back as June that he was facing a stockpiling crisis because of a critical shortage of incinerators in South Africa.
Waste from state hospitals contracted to him in Gauteng and Limpopo has not been collected for two weeks, forcing a hazardous waste crisis at many of these institutions.
He claimed companies in South Africa were being forced to stockpile dangerous medical waste because the country’s legal incinerators couldn’t cope .
The Sunday Times has established that , just two months ago, Sekete hired a 1600m² warehouse in Elandsfontein, east of Johannesburg, to store medical waste.
For the first two weeks he stockpiled needles and syringes, but eventually he filled it up with anatomical waste.
The stench of decaying body parts and the oozing of blood from the warehouse eventually led to him being evicted by the owner, and a private hazardous- waste clean-up team was called in to sanitise the warehouse.
Frances Craigie, Gauteng’s acting chief director of compliance and enforcement for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, said: “The Germiston warehouse is a major health risk. There is no storm-water management on the site, and when it rains, waste seeps into the ground and it becomes contaminated.
“Rainwater ends up in storm-water drains and this eventually ends up where people live. Sekete is facing a R300 000 fine or 10 years in jail.”
Nicole Barlow, chairman of the Environment and Conservation Association, who was present at the Green Scorpions raid on Sekete’s warehouse this week, said: “The Department of Health, [Environmental Affairs] and Dr Sekete are to blame for the medical waste crisis in the country. They share the blame with Buhle … there is a lot of money involved. Permits for new disposal sites are taking too long to be passed. We need dedicated teams to deal with hazardous waste.
“Waste companies should not get massive tenders unless they can show they can dispose of the waste effectively. The owner of the warehouse where Sekete stashed his waste should also be prosecuted.”
A consortium consisting of Thermopower Process Technology, Buhle Waste and Afrimedicals — which won a multimillion-rand Limpopo hospital tender — and Enviro-Serv’s Millennium Waste Management have been locked in a legal battle over the alleged irregular awarding of a tender in 2005.
The consortium won the five-year tender for R218-million, against Millennium’s tender of R26-million.
This week, the Supreme Court of Appeal set aside a High Court ruling against Millennium and ordered the Tender Board to review both tenders.
HOW DISEASE COULD SPREAD
HOSPITAL and medical waste is highly hazardous, containing high levels of disease-causing micro-organisms, known as pathogens.
The risks of illegally stockpiling unsecured containers of medical waste in a warehouse for several months are varied and include:
• The airborne transfer of bacterial infections, such as TB, to humans;
• The transfer of disease through needle pricks and if waste is handled with open wounds;
• Rats, birds, fleas and flies feeding on waste and passing disease on to communities;
• In the right conditions micro-organisms can double in number every 20 minutes;
• Damp boxes encouraging the growth of fungus; and
• Contaminated rainwater running off the warehouse and into drains.
Partially incinerated medical waste on open land also carries risks, including:
• Health hazards, especially if children are exposed to the waste;
• Bacterial infections, including MRSA, klebsiella, leprosy, gangrene and tetanus;
• Air pollution from incomplete incineration;
• Injury and possible infection from exposed needles; and
• Toxins leaching into the ground and contaminating drinking water.
• Anatomical waste — 24 hours (or 90 days if stored at -2ºC);
• Infectious waste — 72 hours;
• Sharps (needles, scalpels and blades) — 30 days
• Pharmaceuticals — 30 days