Medical waste or pathological waste, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is any solid waste that is generated in the diagnosis, treatment (e.g., provision of medical services) or immunization of human beings or animals, in research pertaining thereto, or in the production or testing of biological samples (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, March 24, 1989, pp. 12373-12374). This type of waste is a significant threat to our environment. It comes in the form of medical waste generated by hospitals, clinics and many other health care sources in our community. Hazardous waste in its technical definition is any undesirable substance that can cause a considerable threat to both human health and the environment. Medical waste contains substances that are generally defined as toxic. Many of the chemicals in these products can often be resistant to decomposition and easily penetrate into local soil and groundwater, causing a serious contamination of drinking water and agriculture.
Medical waste can be classified into seven different categories and should be segregated at the point of generation for proper management of medical wastes.
1) Sharps that have been used in animal or human patient care or treatment or in medical, research or industrial laboratories. Includes but not limited to hypodermic needles, syringes, scalpel blades and blood specimen tubes.
2) Cultures and stocks of infectious agents and associated biological. Includes, but not limited to, specimen cultures from medical and pathological laboratories and culture dishes and devices used to transfer, inoculate and mix blood cultures.
3) Human blood and blood products, such as items saturated with the potential of dripping blood, serum, plasma and other blood components.
4) Pathological wastes, such as human tissue, organs, body parts and bodily fluids, removed during surgery and post-mortem procedures.
5) Isolation wastes that include items contaminated with blood or bodily fluids that may have highly communicable infectious diseases and which are identified as viruses by the Center for Disease Control.
6) Animal wastes include animal carcasses, body parts, fluids and bedding of animals that have been afflicted with suspected zoonotic diseases.
7) Unused sharps are another category that is recognized because even though uncontaminated sharps are much less likely to cause disease than contaminated sharps, there remains the risk of physical injury (cuts, scrapes and needle sticks).
The amount of medical waste has increased tremendously over the past 20 years due to susceptible populations and the health care industry. According to the EPA, medical waste is the third largest source of waste generated here in the United States with hospitals disposing over three million tons of waste every year. Over the last 15 years, there has been the development of many different types of alternative treatment technologies that help facilities disinfect and dispose of their waste. They can range from incineration on-site to shredders that reduce the waste’s volume by almost 80 percent. In general, incineration is not the preferred method of disposal due to the dioxin emissions that are released and could cause significant regulatory compliance issues with the Department of Air Quality. Ideally, medical facilities would hire outside medical disposal companies to dispose of the waste in the appropriate landfill.
Medical waste is regulated by many state and federal agencies. Therefore, education and awareness are keys to implementing a successful medical waste program. The Division of Compliance Assistance, along with the Division of Waste Management, can direct you to proper resources on medical waste regulations. Awareness is the first step to compliance.