Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Hospital Waste Disposal.


asked the Minister for the Environment if his attention has been drawn to a report (details supplied) on the disposal of hospital waste in the Dublin area and to a survey carried out in that respect, indicating that the disposal of hospital waste at present is not being carried out in accordance with the highest possible standards and the present methods of disposal could lead to air or water pollution and to the possibility of toxins being introduced into the environment; the action he or any of his colleagues intend to take to remedy the situation, where hospitals designed to facilitate the highest standards of health care, may unwittingly be contributing to ill-health among the population on account of these deficiencies.

The report to which the Deputy refers appears to be an internal report to a sub-committee of Dublin Corporation who are responsible under the European Communities (Waste) Regulations, 1979 for the planning, organisation, authorisation and supervision of all waste operations in their area. My Department are, however, at present in communication with the Department of Health in relation to the general question of disposal of hospital wastes including, in particular, a European Community proposal to include hospital and other clinical wastes in a new and extended definition of hazardous waste.

As regards disposal of hospital waste by incineration, the Air Pollution Act, 1987 obliges the occupiers of non-domestic premises, including premises belonging to the State, to use the best practicable means to prevent or limit air pollution. Hospital incinerators are within the scope of the Act and subject, therefore, to its general provisions. I have recently made regulations entitled the Air Pollution Act, 1987 (Licensing and Industrial Plant) Regulations, 1988 which established a licensing system for new plant to which the Act applies and for certain classes of existing plant in which specified processes, including the incineration of solid or liquid chemical waste, take place. I intend that, in due course, all existing plant, including existing hospital incinerators, will be brought within the scope of the licensing system.

It is the reference to "in due course" that perturbs me. Am I right in saying that the nature of hospital waste is such that it contains, or can contain, serious toxins and carcinogens and that at present in the survey referred to here of 21 Dublin hospitals, very many of these had standards of incineration and disposal of wastes which were utterly unacceptable and illegal? Am I right in saying that they would be likely to lead to the emission of the kind of substances to which I have just referred? Would the Minister tell me what exactly he is doing immediately to deal with the crisis which some of these hospitals have? In one place, for example, there are——

Please, Deputy, I am appealing for brevity in order to make some appreciable progress at Question Time.

This is a serious case, but I do not want to go on too long about it.

I accept the Deputy's point of view on the matter that incineration of all kinds of waste is important, but particularly clinical waste. It must be of serious concern and, as the Deputy quite rightly says, a few incidents did take place——

Not only a few.

A few that were brought to our notice, in so far as the disposal of clinical waste on landfill tips is concerned. That is why we are pursuing efforts to arrive at a defined code of practice with which the health authorities and medical staff generally should be obliged to comply, and they will be so obliged. An important aspect in regard to the regulations, is that they will be applied to new plant as at 1 February but progressively after that to all existing plant, including incineration plant. In support of that, the Commission itself is conscious of the very problem about which the Deputy has been talking — and I share his concern. A new hazardous waste directive is being put together which will include hospital wastes and how they should be dealt with effectively. In the meantime we are getting a code of practice agreed on in the Department.

It is not a question of a code of practice, but simply that the incinerators in many of the hospitals at present are, by definition of age and inadequacy as referred to in the report, simply not able to burn the waste at a temperature which would not allow toxins to escape. It is not a question of a code of practice, but of plant being inadequate. Am I right in saying that there have been proposals in front of the Department of Health and perhaps the Department of the Environment for many months seeking permission to install incinerators which will do the job? Would that not help to solve the problem? Why does the Minister not act in that respect? The directives in place at present are simply being ignored.

This matter comes up in another question about the study that I authorised some months ago as regards feasibility of waste disposal methods. That report arrived into the Department in the last while.

We are talking about urgent danger from incinerators.

Order, please. I call Deputy McCartan.

Could I ask the Minister to reply to the question about out-of-date plant? Is that not the essence of the question?


I cannot compel the Minister to speak if he does not want to.

It is germane to the question.

There is a number of incinerators in question; there is no conflict on this. All incineration should be carried out properly, with a proper facility. Some of the plant, as the Deputy quite rightly says, are older types but some of the newer hospitals have a new model incineration plant.

That is in question.

It is not a question of the plant, but how it is commissioned and operated also that matters a great deal.

That is not the question.

That is why——

Let us hear the Minister's reply.

I am sorry, but I have to complain about Beaumont Hospital.

Is it any wonder that there is smog in this city? We are getting smoggy answers.

The plant will operate satisfactorily when it is properly commissioned to do so. That is why we have taken the matter up with the Department of Health to see to it that it functions properly.

Of the 21 hospitals surveyed, is the Minister aware that the most worrisome of the lot is Beaumont Hospital which, although open only a matter of months, has an incinerator that is utterly inadequate because of its poor commissioning? Is the Minister aware, in an update to the report he has, that landfilling in County Meath was proceeded with without planning permission and that the hospital has now reverted to using its incineration plant, which is polluting the Artane and Coolock areas at an unmerciful rate?

Finally, is the Minister aware that the environmental health officer of the corporation, Mr. O'Reilly, is seeking an urgent meeting with him to look at the organisation of a central plan or plant, an incinerator to service all Dublin hospitals, one for the north side and one for the south side? In view of the urgent implications of the report, would the Minister be agreeable to meeting with him and to responding to proposals?

If he wishes to see me, the answer is yes.

What about Beaumont Hospital?

I call Question No. 6.