Chew on this: Dental waste is an eco-menace
A worried researcher says the industry is too nonchalant about its medical waste
Dental technologists help give us brighter smiles, but some of them may also be mucking up the environment.
These are the findings of researcher and dental technologist Yonela Ngombane in her dissertation on laboratory waste management.
She reported her findings this week at the annual WasteCon, held at Emperors Palace in Gauteng, by the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa.
Ngombane looked at waste management in dental laboratories in terms of SA’s Waste Management Act. She interviewed 21 research participants including seven laboratory owners, seven technicians and seven academics from the dental technology programme at a training institution at UKZN.
The study found that waste management was poorly understood and practised.
“If this is happening in KZN, you can bet it happens all over SA,” she told Times Select.
Ngombane, 32, said her research showed the dental industry had no desire to understand waste management.
According to the Green Scorpions, all dental waste is considered medical waste. However, Ngombane found dental waste containing plaster and stone models, metal scraps and gypsum had been mistaken for building debris.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, waste is classified into general or hazardous waste. Medical waste is considered hazardous.
Ngombane found that in a typical laboratory set-up, dental solid waste was retrieved from solid waste traps installed under the sinks, while other waste was disposed of into the sewerage system.
“The materials that are usually trapped in this manner are gypsum from model grinders and excess mixing over the sink, investment materials, pumice, sand and wax that has been boiled out from denture flasks or working models.”
She said there was no information on what happened to the chemical waste in the chemical traps in laboratories. She observed that most of the toxic liquids were being washed down the sink, or they were found on plaster or gypsum that was then disposed of as general waste.
“It is also important to note that European countries’ disposal of gypsum waste from dental laboratories is strictly regulated by environmental protection agencies.”
Dental technologists make crowns, bridges, inlays, dentures and orthodontic appliances as prescribed by a dentist.
Ngombane said most of the practices she had visited for her research were in residential areas, “so I believe that the municipalities have work to do”.
“Do they know what is being thrown away in their areas, how much is actually household waste?”
Grant Walters, of the Green Scorpions, who is responsible for waste and pollution crime at the national Department of Environmental Affairs, said penalties relating to the waste act could reach R10m.
He said the fault lay with waste classification, which would take place with the waste managers which all medical laboratories, including dental laboratories, were legally obliged to use.
“In general with anything generated in medical facilities, you need to make use of accredited medical providers that take waste and dispose of it lawfully.”
He said gypsum should never be classified as building waste.
“With that classification, it is a hell of a misrepresentation, and a significant contravention of the law.”
“This is a serious offence not only in terms of our law [environmental], but fraud is a common law offence, they would be fined for an additional offence.”
Dr Nirvada Niranjan, a manager at the South African Dental Association, said dental technologists did not fall under the association “and as such it is not within our mandate to guide the dental technology profession in any way”.
Dental Technology Association of SA chief operating officer Axel Grabowski said Ngombane was correct in saying dental technicians’ waste was disposed of as normal household waste.
“But there is no danger in our debris, it goes to the dump. In my 40-odd years in the profession I’ve never heard of anything saying that we should dispose of our waste in any other manner.”
The South African Dental Technologists Council did not respond to calls for comment.