Adjournment Debate. - Hospital Waste Management.

The Minister will recall that his Department requested a waste management plan in the various health authorities, the reasons being to minimise the impact of waste on the environment and to bring about better conditions generally for those handling waste. Incinerators which operated in University Hospital, Cork and St. Finbarr's Hospital were closed down on 22 October 1994 because their emissions were outside the permitted limits. In October it was decided to export the waste until a microwave unit was put in place. Such a unit which had been recommended by the Department was tried and tested, it is now in place and matters are proceeding satisfactorily.

There is a cost involved in implementing a strategic management plan for waste, while the health board has complied with the request from the Department of Health, no funding has been provided. The Minister should take into account that between October and the end of March the cost of exporting waste from St. Finbarr's, University Hospital Cork and other hospitals was £350,000. In addition, putting in place the microwave unit on a lease basis costs a further £600,000 per annum.

The Southern Health Board stands to lose almost £1 million by keeping up to date, as requested by the Department, and in line with what the Minister for the Environment has introduced in terms of waste management. That health board does not have £1 million pounds to throw away and unless and until the Department is willing to provide such funding vital hospital and patient services will be hit. At the end of the financial year that health board will encounter major difficulties. As recently as last week that health board encountered major difficulties in providing hospital beds for patients with acute illnesses and operations had to be postponed as the board did not have the necessary resources.

If the Minister is demanding that standards be put in place for proper waste management he will have to pay the piper. Members of that health board will hold the Minister and his Department responsible if money is not forthcoming when vital services are affected in the autumn. For that reason it is timely to indicate that this provision should be made. I ask the Minister to ensure that almost £9.500 is made available to the Southern Health Board to alleviate the cost of putting in place a proper waste management system, as requested by him and his Department.

I thank Deputy O'Keeffe for giving me the opportunity of responding to this question.

Waste disposal in the health services in a manner that is safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective has become a very difficult problem to resolve. Considerable progress is being made in tackling this problem, although there are still many difficulties to be overcome, not least in the technical field. The approach of the Department to solving the problem of disposal of healthcare waste is one which has four stages: (1) putting in place an environmentally conscious healthcare waste policy; (2) examination of the technical and organisational options for the treatment and final disposal of healthcare waste; (3) preparation of a strategic plan for an integrated system for the treatment and final disposal of healthcare risk waste on a nationwide basis: and (4) implementation, following consultations, of the strategic plan.

The first stage has been completed and the policy document has been issued to health agencies. The policy promotes good waste management practices, including prevention, reduction and segregation as well as the preparation of waste management plans by each hospital.

A strategic plan for an integrated system for the treatment and final disposal of healthcare risk waste has also been circulated to the health agencies. The plan proposes four central treatment facilities nationally, two in Dublin, one in Cork and one in Galway, utilising one or more of the new technologies.

The Southern Health Board has started a pilot scheme using the microwave process of pre-treatment by decontamination and shredding of healthcare waste prior to disposal. I accept that this new method of treatment is more expensive than the previous incineration method and the question of increasing the board's revenue allocation for 1995 to cover the extra cost will be considered in the light of the results of the public scheme. It is not possible at this stage to determine the precise additional annual cost that will be involved and discussions in this regard are ongoing between officials in my Department and the health board.

That is rather remiss of the Minister of State. The present position is costing us daily and it is unsatisfactory.

Sin deire an díospóireacht.