The mystery medical waste washing up on Durban beaches


People using the picturesque Indian Ocean beaches of Durban, South Africa, were horrified to discover medical waste floating up on shore earlier this week. The city health unit closed four beaches on Wednesday

City officials said clean-up of the waste, which was mainly sealed packs of condoms and bottles of tablets, would likely take two weeks. The Health Unit of the eThekwini Municipality, which is the official name for Durban, also said it was investigating the source of the waste. For now, the source remains unknown.

But our Observer says that Durban has a serious issue on its hand with this disposal issue.

Judith Subban

“With the high prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country, we can’t take risks with medical waste”

Desmond D'sa is a prize-winning environmental justice activist who co-founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance in 1996. SDCEA gathers information about the industrial pollution affecting Durban’s population and related health problems.

D’sa’s work has pitted him against powerful, wealthy and violent interests. In 2011, his home was firebombed and he, his wife and daughter were all treated for injuries.

On Sunday, May 15, we were holding a beachfront protest against Chinese fishing trawlers, which operate illegally off of our shores.

That’s when we first saw all the medical waste, which was mixed in with huge amounts of plastic piled on the beaches. [Editor’s note: According to the South African media, the medical waste was reported by a beach user on Monday].

The source of the waste is still unknown. But whatever it is, it’s very worrying. With the high prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country, we can’t take risks with medical waste. If someone comes into contact with a contaminated needle, they could die. So the consequences for those responsible need to be just as serious. [Editor’s note: The spokeswoman of the eThekwini Municipality Health Unit told TMG Digital there were no needles or syringes found among the medical waste on Durban’s beaches. However, D’sa said he had heard multiple reports of washed-up needles].

There could also be real economic consequences. Durban is a tourism city and people fly in from all over the world all year long to go to the beachfront and swim in the Indian Ocean. [Editor’s note: The four beaches that were closed are not Durban’s main bathing beaches]. If this keeps happening, there will be undoubted consequences on the tourist industry.

Secondly, there are over 12,000 subsistence fishermen working off of South Durban’s coasts. Imagine if the fish get contaminated by the waste. The fishermen’s very livelihoods are at risk. The fish is already being affected by other kinds of pollution.

Judith Subban

“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing”

In my opinion, there could be two possibilities for the appearance of the waste. First of all, there are hazardous waste landfills located near the estuaries around Durban. If water levels rise, then the waste can easily get into the water.

It’s also possible that the waste was directly dumped into estuaries that feed into the ocean. Paying for medical waste to be dealt with is expensive and so private clinics or hospitals may have resorted to illegally dumping to cut costs.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing. Back in 2009, there was a scandal in Welkom, in Free State, where waste management companies were found to be dumping medical waste [Editor’s note: In one location, authorities uncovered 300 tons of needles, blood vials and discarded pills that were buried in trenches alongside amputated body parts and foetuses].

Wasteman, which is the country’s biggest waste management company, was actually prosecuted over this illegal dumping in Welkom. But the company, which has multi-million rand contracts for waste management, was just fined and continues to work in the sector. [Editor’s note: Wasteman claims to have made significant changes since the incident. They replaced the head of the medical division and created a position called the national risk manager, which reports directly to the board.]

“It’s clear we have a big pollution problem”

Seventy percent of South African industry is located in Durban and it is also the biggest chemical and petrochemical centre in the country. Here, we have the biggest chemical storage facilities in Africa and the southern hemisphere. We’ve seen sewage seeping into the estuaries and the sea, as well, but this is the first time we’ve seen medical waste.

So it’s clear we have a big pollution problem. Yet there are talks going on about setting up desalination plants and turning the ocean water into drinking water! We want to see an independent investigation carried out and we also need much more enforcement present on the beaches to prevent illegal dumping.

South African website IOL reported that there are not enough treatment plants to take in all the medical waste, which may be another reason that this waste is being dumped.

In South Africa, strict laws govern the disposal of ‘healthcare risk waste’ – a category that includes infectious waste, ‘sharps’ like syringes and needles, and expired, unused or contaminated drugs. For example, hazardous ‘sharps’ must be stored in specific containers and then disposed in a licenced waste disposal facility. Medicine must be destroyed in front of an inspector. The generator of the waste – a pharmacy or hospital, for example – could face criminal charges if it doesn’t deal with the waste in an environmentally sound way.