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 reduce the possibility of injury or infection. State laws govern the disposal of medical waste 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,

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.

Waste generators are grouped into two categories: Small Quantity Generators (SQG) and Large Quantity Generators (LQG), based on the amount of medical waste produced monthly. LQGs produce at least 200 pounds per month; they generally are nursing homes, clinics, health departments, or laboratories. Physicians, dentists and veterinarians in private practice are more often SQGs.

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.

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.

Principles of Medical Waste Management


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