A used mask dumped on the road on the Janata Curfew day. COVID-19 outbreak is serious and it is essential that masks, gloves, tissues and other used items should be disposed in closed-bins and not left in the open. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)
Although health agencies -- including the Union Health Ministry -- have advised healthy members of the general public against wearing face masks, almost everyone seems to be wearing them. Also, nobody seems to know what to do with them after they are used.
In Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, the masks -- especially single-use ones -- are being dumped by users with their household garbage and being picked up by wastepickers unknowingly.
There's also no mechanism for collection and disposal of masks and medical waste generated by more than 2,000 people who are under 'home-quarantine' across the district for having a travel history or showing COVID-19 symptoms. While some home-quarantined individuals are burning the masks, others have no option but to dump them in the garbage.
As per an advisory issued by the Directorate General of Health Services of Ministry of Health earlier this month, used masks, especially those used by "patients/care-givers/close contacts" under home-care, are to be considered "potentially infected" and should be disinfected with ordinary bleach solution (five per cent) or sodium hypochlorite solution (1 per cent) and then disposed of either by burning or deep burial. As per the guidelines, a single-use mask shouldn't be used for more than 6 hours or on more than one occasion which, if done, may increase chances of infection.
A government official who conducts visits to home-quarantined individual in Nagar Road area said, "The families are not aware of what to do with used masks. We advise them that they should burn or bury them. However, burning or burying is often impractical due to pressure from neighbours and other residents of the housing society."
No mechanism for collection of household 'biomedical waste'
The Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporations have created a parallel garbage-disposal mechanism for biomedical waste generated by hospitals, labs and clinics. The responsibility of collecting biomedical waste from 5,500 healthcare establishments has been outsourced to Passco Environmental Solutions -- a private firm contracted by the Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad civic bodies. More than a dozen vans collect the biomedical garbage every day and transfer them to Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTF) in Pune's Sangamwadi or Pimpri's Yashwantrao Chavan Municipal Hospital where they are incinerated or recycled.
"We have a barcode-based biomedical waste tracking system. So, we collect only from authorised and registered healthcare centers. The four 'isolation wards' for quarantining suspected COVID-19 cases have been linked to the nearest public hospitals, which enables us in collecting biomedical waste. These come in yellow bags -- colour code signifying contaminated waste for immediate and bulk disposal -- we incinerate them immediately," said a person involved in the mechanism.
"We don't have a mandate to collect household medical waste nor will it be feasible to take our vehicles to these societies for collection," added the staffer, who pointed out that in Pune or Pimpri-Chinchwad, there's no system in place for collection of biomedical waste from homes. "These are unusual times due to the outbreak, but even generally people who take insulin injections or those nursing wounds may need such a service. Our cities don't have it yet," he said.
Municipal bodies should do it: Div Commissioner Mhaisekar
When asked about the issue, Pune's Divisional Commissioner, who is leading the fight against the outbreak in Pune, said he will direct municipal authorities to create a system for collection and disposal of "all used masks" and ensure they are eliminated scientifically. "It's the responsibility of the municipal bodies. I will direct them to collect the used masks -- which comes under biomedical waste -- and dispose of them," said Mhaisekar.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), too, issued guidelines on March 18 about handling and disposal of waste generated while treating or quarantining COVID-19 patients. These guidelines make specific mention of biomedical waste generated by 'home-care' patients.
"In case of home-care from suspected patients, biomedical waste should be collected separately in yellow bags and handed over to authorised waste collectors engaged by local bodies. ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) should engage CBWTFs to pick-up such waste either directly from quarantined houses or identified collection points," read the guideline.
While PMC is not yet following this guideline, Dyaneshwar Molak, joint commissioner, PMC and in-charge of Solid Waste Management Department, said the civic body will do so soon. He said "since the masks worn by healthy people are not contaminated, they don't need separate disposal mechanism”.
"The only question is about masks worn by quarantined individuals. At institutional quarantine facilities run by PMC, we are handing them over to our biomedical waste treatment facility. Those who are quarantined at home can pack their used masks separately and give them to our waste-pickers who can hand them over for incineration to biomedical teams," said Molak.