A medical waste crisis is unfolding in the Eastern Cape, and provincial authorities are actively precipitating it. Only four months after the largest illegal medical waste dump in South Africa’s history was discovered in the Free State, it is evident that government is not intervening to clean up the mess in the health care risk waste industry. The DA has been warning since October last year, when the DA Shadow Minister of Environmental Affairs, Gareth Morgan, released a document on problems in this sector, that improved government oversight was necessary. Among other things, the DA expressed concern that the tender processes involved in the awarding of contracts to medical waste service providers were often poorly adjudicated.

It has come to the attention of the DA that an existing contract awarded annually by the Eastern Cape Department of Health for the removal and treatment of heath care risk waste from provincial hospitals and clinics expires on 31 March 2010. To date no new award of the contract has occurred. Bid documents issued in December 2009 were, disturbingly, based on outdated legislative requirements and standards. In addition, numerous vague and ambiguous requirements allowed for inexperienced operators to bid at lower prices than those experienced and responsible operators who use appropriate and safe methods of health care risk waste handling. In many cases, compliance with the latest standards for waste handling would disqualify a bidder. The bid has subsequently been cancelled, and the process is now in a dangerous limbo. Quite what will happen on 1 April 2010 is not clear. The existing contractor is not aware of its status.

It is unclear what the Department is up to. It is clear, however, that the process is shrouded in secrecy. Has the Department secretly given the contract to another service provider? Whatever is happening, the Department needs to realise that the management of health care risk waste is complex. If improperly disposed of this waste has the potential to seriously harm or to kill. The Eastern Cape has been plagued with numerous cases of illegal medical waste dumping in the last few years. The causes of these incidents are almost always the same: contractors who either do not have access to facilities to treat the medical waste or who have bid at such low prices that they cannot comply with all the legislative requirements of the proper disposal of the waste, which is, if done according to the book, a costly affair.

The DA will continue to utilise all the tools at its disposal to force the responsible authorities to take the long overdue and necessary actions to ensure the safe disposal of medical waste.

The DA insists that the issuing of this tender is an open, transparent process and that the contractor is competent and qualified. We do not want to see the embarrassing situation in the Free State repeated in this province.

This is a highly specialised sector and as member of the Portfolio Committee of Health, I will ensure that the Department of Health is committed following the proper processes. I will also do a follow-up with legislature questions to the MEC for Health.

For further information, please contact Pine Pienaar, MPL on 082 446 1888