Medical Waste and How to Manage It
Medical centers, hospitals and veterinary clinics in the United States generate over 6000 tons of waste every day. Although the majority of this waste is as harmless as common household waste, as much as 15 percent of this waste poses a potential infection hazard, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Medical waste, also referred to as clinical waste, has to be handled and disposed of in a proper manner to reduce the possibility of injury or infection. State laws govern the disposal of medical waste, mandating specific methods to either package or sterilize the waste so that the waste does not affect people, animals, or the environment in negative ways.
Medical waste can pose danger if exposed to the general public or environment in an untreated form. They also threaten the safety of health care workers, who are considered among the highest risk, especially from infectious waste. The dangers of infectious waste tend to decline over time, and health care workers are nearest the waste generation in both distance and time,
This website is about management of medical waste - identifying it, reducing production, segregating it, treating it, packaging it, and disposing of it.
The overall goals of medical waste management - and all waste management are;
- Protect Public Health - including the health of the medical waste workers
- Protect the Environment
- Recover Resources - to the extent that is economical
Different types of medical waste pose different risks. Engineers, scientists, and industrial hygienists have some up with a variety of methods to process medical waste. The design process takes into account the expected nature of the waste; one or more treatments are typically applied before ultimate disposal.
Storage containers, and sometimes other equipment, are marked with the biohazard symbol. This symbol warns of not just medical waste, but all manner of biological hazards, The biohazard symbol:
Was developed in the United States by Dow Chemical in the 1960s and is now used worldwide. Like other world hazard signs, it has no words on it. People have to learn what it means. It is widely used so many individuals know it indicates some sort of hazard even if they cannot articulate what sort of hazard.
At one time the biohazard symbol was written into US federal law. It no longer is, but some US states have written it into their laws and the symbol finds use worldwide for biohazards, not just for medical waste.
The processes for disposing of medical waste came under scrutiny in the 1980s after a few highly publicized incidents (e.g. medical waste washing up on beaches on the east coast of the United States). These incidents prompted the U.S. Congress to pass The Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 and to publish Finding the Rx for Managing Medical Waste. Although the EPA provides baseline regulations, most requirements for the treatment and disposal for medical waste are dictated by the individual states.
What is the difference between medical waste and healthcare waste?
There isn't one. The term healthcare waste is also used. Most waste generated at health care facilities is not substantially different, or more harmful, than waste generated at any office building. It includes paper, plastic, and food waste and can be put in the municipal waste stream for landfilling without treatment. This is sometimes called “healthcare general waste waste” or HCGW. The waste of interest to us on this website is healthcare risk waste (HCRW) - waste from medical facilities that poses a risk to human health and the environment.
Some medical waste is called pathological waste and some is "regulated waste". Some is hazardous waste. In the UK the designation Clinical Waste is often used. Other names you may see are red bag waste, bio-medical waste, and bio-hazardous waste.
Is medical waste hazardous waste?
Not necessarily. We need to say what "hazardous" waste is. Infectious wastes or sharps can be hazardous to people who come into contact with them, but the term hazardous waste in the US is used to refer to waste defined by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Often also called RCRA waste or RCRA hazardous waste, to be in this category, the waste must either be
- Listed - contain materials on the federal government’s lists. There are four lists F, K, P, U. Some drugs are included on the P and U lists.
- Characteristic - being highly reactive, corrosive, toxic, or combustible
Does the federal government regulate medical waste?
No, not really. The Environmental Protection Agency provides some guidance but they do not have statutory authority to regulate medical waste. At one time they did. The Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) of 1988 gave the EPA power to oversee medical waste, but it expired in 1991. Even when the act was in force, the EPA ran their program in only part of the country. Now the power rests in the individual states. As a result of their efforts the EPA produced model guidelines for state management programs.
At the state level, who regulates this waste? It differs from state to state, but it is likely that the state’s environmental agency and health departments may get involved. Contact your state government to find out more.Treatment of Pharmaceutical Waste