Medical Waste and How to Manage It
Medical centers, hospitals and veterinary clinics in the United States generate over one million tons of waste each year. 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 eliminate the possibility of injury or infection. Federal and 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.
Although the vast majority of medical waste is no more dangerous than household waste, a significant fraction of medical waste does pose some form of danger if exposed to the general public or environment in an untreated form. Different types of medical waste pose different dangers depending on their nature. Improvements in technology have allowed for a variety of methods to be developed to process medical waste prior to disposal. Different methods can be applied to different types of medical waste to provide the most thorough yet cost-effective treatment method per waste type.
Waste generators are grouped into two categories: Small Quantity Generators (SQG) and Large Quantity Generators (LQG). Facilities are categorized based on the amount of medical waste produced monthly. LGC’s produce at least 200 pounds per month and consist of nursing homes, clinics, health departments and laboratories. Physicians, dentists and veterinarians in private practice are classified as SQG.
The processes for disposing of medical waste came under scrutiny in the
1980s after a few highly publicized incidents of medical waste washing up
on beaches on the east coast of the United States. These incidents prompted
the U.S. Congress to act, creating the The Medical Waste Tracking Act of
1988 and the publication Finding the Rx for Managing Medical Waste, which
was created in 1990 by the Office of Technology Assessment, an entity within
the U.S. Congress. Although the EPA provides baseline regulations, most
requirements for the treatment and disposal for medical waste are dictated
by the individual states. There has been movement in Congress to authorize the EPA to track medical waste nationwide and outline
management techniques, but this legislation did not pass.