Our Burning Planet


Villagers alarmed by prescription drugs and other medical waste ‘dumping’ on Wild Coast beaches

Villagers alarmed by prescription drugs and other medical waste ‘dumping’ on Wild Coast beaches
From left to right: A canister marked “Emtricitabine”, a generic medication used to treat HIV‑1. (Photo: Cromwell Sonjica) / Some of the drug canisters recovered from just three of the unsorted rubbish bags. (Photo: Cromwell Sonjica) / A resident displays a handful of the prescription pills that have washed up on the Wild Coast. (Photo: Supplied)

Rural communities cleaning up piles of litter along the Eastern Cape Wild Coast have made a disturbing discovery – dozens of plastic canisters containing expired or unused prescription drugs strewn along isolated beaches.

Although printed markings have been washed off many canisters from exposure to water, rock or sand, visible markings indicate that at least some of the pills are used to treat epilepsy or HIV-related infections.

Markings on some of the canisters and bubble packs include “Epilim CR 200” which is prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy or to control bipolar disorder, as well as “Emtricitabine”, a generic medication used in combination with Tenofovir to treat adults infected with human immunodeficiency virus type 1, a virus that causes Aids.

Cromwell Sonjica, a resident of the Mtentu area, said he was worried that the medication was dumped illegally from inland clinics or hospitals and then washed down to the sea via a local river.

Wild Coast medical waste

An assortment of plastic debris littering the rocks near Mtentu. (Photo: Supplied)

In response to queries, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Health said the disposal of medical waste from 91 health facilities in the province was outsourced to private service providers.

“There are very strict rules to regulate the safe disposal of all medical waste and the department also spends a lot of money for these services. So, any negligence or dumping activity which endangers the health of people, animals and the environment is totally unacceptable and there must be consequences if evidence of irregularity is found.”

Some of the drug canisters recovered from just three of the unsorted rubbish bags. (Photo: Cromwell Sonjica)

He also suggested that the national Department of Health and the Green Scorpions national environmental management inspectorate should investigate the source of the medicines.

Wild coast medical waste

A resident displays a handful of the prescription pills that have washed up on the Wild Coast. (Photo: Supplied)

The medication, which includes canisters with unbroken seals, was discovered during a beach clean-up organised by the local Amadiba Crisis Committee on a 25 km stretch of coastline between the Mtentu and Mzamba rivers.

Committee spokesperson Nonhle Mbuthuma said local villagers are worried about the potential health danger posed by the medication if consumed by rural children.

“Kids are very curious and inquisitive. When they go to the beach, there is a risk that they will open these canisters and swallow the pills to see if they are sweet or to test those with different colours.

Wild Coast medical waste

A sealed blister pack marked marked “Epilim CR 200”, a drug prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder. (Photo: Cromwell Sonjica)

“We covered the coast, from Mtentu to Sigidi villages and found plenty of medical waste on the beaches. There are lots and lots of pill containers, so we fear that hospitals or clinics may be dumping expired medicines.

“We have never before seen sealed medication bottles on our coast. Such waste doesn’t come from local villages and towns,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Beachgoers warned after medical waste washes up on Wild Coast shores

Sonjica and Mbuthuma were not able to provide a clear estimate of the total number of drug canisters and blister packs found, as most of the waste was picked up and placed unsorted into black rubbish bags, along with other plastic waste by several different teams involved in a 10-day clean-up.

Cromwell Sonjica, Wild Coast medical waste

Cromwell Sonjica (left) and colleagues from the Mtentu area pile up bags of trash following a beach clean-up. (Photo: Supplied)

However, Sonjica said he had opened up just three of the numerous black bags of unsorted litter and found dozens of pill canisters in the debris that was cleared up along a very short section of beach near Mtentu.

“We don’t know where this is coming from, but the residents I spoke to were very surprised because they had never seen this in the past. It’s possible that this medication was dumped next to a river and then washed down to the coast by flooding over recent months,” Sonjica suggested.

medical waste

Some of the numerous canisters of expired or discarded prescription medicines found on the Wild Coast over the last 10 days near the Mtentu river. (Photo: Cromwell Sonjica)

Mbuthuma said the clean-up was arranged to get rid of unsightly litter in a region where several residents depend on community-based eco-tourism ventures along the Wild Coast.

“Our cattle also roam the beaches and river mouths and sometimes eat the plastic waste, so we don’t want to expose them to risk either.”

She said residents had urged local municipal officials to remove the litter collected during the recent clean-up but were still waiting for trucks to arrive. Quite apart from the potential health danger posed by the pills, Sonjica said it was clear that rivers and beaches along the Wild Coast were heavily polluted because waste management in inland towns and villages had collapsed.

The national departments of health and environmental affairs have not responded yet to requests for comment. DM

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