As the entire world is experiencing an international pandemic (COVID-19) that is spreading through various countries around the world with variable impact, one can only reflect on what is important, Human Health. In this relatively critical period where governments, and individuals alike are attempting to take measures to preserve human health and protect it as much as possible, one cannot but take a moment to acknowledge all the efforts taken and to applaud all those who are putting their health at stake to save and/or preserve the lives of others. Worldwide medical doctors have been rightfully applauded for their efforts in treating COVID-19 patients and in researching cures and vaccination for the virus. However, are the medical doctors the only heroes that are taking risks to preserve and rescue lives? This article will shed some light on another category of heroes that are also risking their lives to secure our health.
Health Risks from Poor Solid Waste Management
Poor solid waste management may result in accumulation of waste close to residential neighborhood and in open dumpsites. Untreated municipal solid waste may result in the release of heavy metals, and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), additionally, it creates a hosting environment for rodents, flies and other pests which contribute to the spreading of many diseases. The United States Public Health service has identified 22 diseases related to municipal solid waste, some of these common diseases that may affect human health are typhoid, yellow fever, dengue fever, diarrhoea, cholera, encephalitis, fungi, dynestrey, malaria, plague, flea-borne, eye infections, skin infections and respiratory diseases.
The risks are not limited to municipal solid waste, but exceed it and become more serious when it comes to industrial solid waste and healthcare waste. Industrial waste are richer in heavy metals and in chemicals, while healthcare waste may themselves carry infectious diseases. Hence many diseases are caused by industrial and healthcare diseases that may include, carcinogenic diseases, blood infections, skin infections, hepatitis, acute liver conditions, nervous system diseases, Meningitis, Bacteremia, lung infections (pneumonia, tuberculosis), and other diseases.
Solid Waste and COVID-19 Risks
COVID-19 is a virus that is classified as an infectious disease and has been recognized recently due to its massive outbreak as an international pandemic. Below is a list of some of the features of COVID-19:
- Infected people may need 14 days after getting infected before they experience any symptoms.
- Some infected people are asymptomatic and thus do not experience any symptoms.
- The virus is not air-borne although it might survive up to 3 hours in the air within water particle under humid weather conditions.
- The virus is transmitted mainly via direct contact between humans or between humans and various surfaces.
- The virus may survive on surfaces between few hours (textiles), up to 9 days.
Based on these virus features, asymptomatic people and infected people within the first 14 days, who are not identified as infected people are not confined and even if national quarantine measure are enforced, they still can spread the virus to the people they are quarantined with and through the waste stream. Yes the waste stream ensures the required humidity medium and the required solid material to ensure the survival of the virus. Thus the virus may be transferred to waste management teams from collection to treatment through the regular municipal solid waste stream.
Additionally, waste produced from COVID-19 infected patients (hospitalized or confined) are also classified as infectious waste and should be handled accordingly. This would increase the load and pressure on the healthcare waste infrastructure and thus increase the pressure on the healthcare waste management personnel.
Solid Waste Management Workforce
Based on the solid waste disease risks mentioned within this article, it becomes more evident that the solid waste labor force (garbage men) from waste collectors to employees at waste facilities may be facing health risks on a daily basis. These risks in light of COVID-19 have further increased. The solid waste labor force worldwide is taking health risks to secure a better healthy environment to the rest of the population and to the residential neighborhoods. Imagine, if the garbage men stop collecting and treating waste, garbage will pile in neighborhoods, and entire societies will be facing the disease risks highlighted in this article. Furthermore, what limits health risks on the labor force, are the regulations, specifications, requirements, and standards set by legislators, consultants, managers and operators. Thus, the healthy residential environment that people live in is sustained by a chain of solid waste workforce from legislators, to managers, to consultants, to operators, with the labor force at the forefront. Should any link of this chain fail to perform, the health risks may increase within societies.
Analogies and Gratitude
Many professions are based on taking risks to secure the safety and health of others, such professions are policemen, soldiers, firefighters, medical teams and others. A policeman would risk his life to catch a criminal and thus ensure the safety of societies. A soldier, would risk his life to protect the citizens of his country. A firefighter, would risk his life to rescue a trapped person or to put out a fire and ensure the safety of a neighborhood. A medical team, would expose themselves to potential diseases as they attempt to cure or rescue a patient.
Similarly, a garbage man (waste labor force), is exposing himself on a daily basis to the health risks of solid waste, to ensure a healthier and safer environment within residential areas. However, there is a slight difference. A garbage man is seldom if ever acknowledged for the risks he takes and for doing a good job. A garbage man in most cases is among the least paid within any society, least to be socially accepted, least to be given awards, and the least to be recognized and promoted for doing a good job.
On the other hand policemen, firefighters, soldiers, and medical teams, have better social recognition, are usually better paid, and usually receive awards for doing a good job. Now, under this ongoing global pandemic situation where people are expressing their gratitude to many professionals that are working under high health risk conditions to secure a safer and healthier conditions for everyone else, once again garbage men are overlooked and forgotten. Accordingly, in addition to expressing the gratitude to all the professionals risking their lives for others, a special gratitude is given to the solid waste workforce, especially the solid waste labor force (garbage men), who relentlessly contribute to healthier urban conditions under various conditions (wartime, up-rises, pandemics, natural disasters, etc…), for they are the anonymous heroes who are always ignored and undermined.