Is it possible that as we spend time and money healing people who are sick or injured, we are simultaneously harming the planet and ourselves? In looking more closely at the waste generated by hospitals, it would seem this is the case.
Given the delicate and dangerous nature of what medical facilities regularly throw away, improper disposal of medical waste has the potential to cause considerable problems for people, communities, and the environment.
Types of Medical Waste
Medical waste itself consists of many different things, but one of the most dangerous are “sharps,” or needles from syringes and surgical tools like scalpels. Because they are designed to penetrate tissue, these items can easily cut or puncture anyone handling them. This fact contributes to waste management challenges.
In fact, the World Health Organization suggests approximately 40 percent of hepatitis and 12 percent of HIV cases around the world can be attributed to occupational exposure. Ineffective handling of this kind of trash can lead to major public health risks and problems for waste management workers. When viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that medical waste needs to be treated with the utmost care and consideration.
Current Disposal Methods for Medical Waste
Not only that, hospitals generate tons of ordinary solid waste every day. In less developed parts of the world, this regular waste is often mixed with medical debris and incinerated, sometimes even in the open air. This process is dangerous and can spread disease. As hospitals heal those who are sick, the trash that is left behind can make people sick all over again.
Not only that, incinerating medical waste often releases large amounts of mercury, dioxins, and other pollutants that can toxify the earth and air. And even in countries where waste management practices are more sophisticated, most hospitals agree human and animal body parts and organs must be incinerated to reduce any chance of contamination and disease.
Before 1997, most medical waste was burned in the United States. When stricter emissions regulations were enacted by the EPA, this practice came under greater scrutiny and standards began to change, leading to the development of alternative disposal methods.
Some alternative treatment and disposal techniques for medical waste include thermal treatment, steam sterilization, pyrolysis of organic material, and chemical disposal. The shift to these forms of disposal created some solutions, but led to a whole host of new issues around how treatment technologies are licensed, certified, and regulated.
The Scope of the Problem
Because biomedical waste can be solid or liquid and is generated by hospitals, blood banks, clinics, vets, morgues, home health care sites, laboratories, and doctors’ offices, it is not a small problem. Medical waste consists of blood, body fluid, human tissue, bandages, discarded equipment, and other infectious material that needs to be carefully regulated. As a result, health departments like the Center for Disease Control and the US Food and Drug Administration have created guidelines, but they tend to vary from place to place.
In the 1980s, when medical waste began washing up on many beaches on the east coast, Congress decided to enact the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA), which instituted stricter regulations for this type of debris. Unfortunately, those standards and oversight expired in 1991. The left many with the notion that medical waste is basically equivalent to regular trash once it leaves the medical facility.
However, medical waste is not normal trash. It is distinctly different from other types of waste and, in addition to infectious or potentially infectious material, can contain hazardous chemicals and radioactive material. While these items are not infectious, they do require special disposal. In this way, medical debris is not just a waste management concern, it is an environmental one. And medical waste that is classified as infectious has the potential to spread disease if not handled correctly.
The Future of Medical Waste Disposal
Once the MWTA dissolved, states took on the responsibility of regulating their own waste based on the resulting information and developed their own programs. That said, there is little consistency – and even less accountability – from state to state. These days, disposal often occurs at an offsite location where it can be treated.
However, large amounts of biomedical waste are also being handled onsite through the use of sophisticated and highly-specialized equipment. It is important to note that this process is typically expensive and not recommended for small hospitals or low-budget clinics. Additionally, on-site disposal often lacks the level of professionalism and expertise a dedicated service can provide.