The medical world has drastically changed throughout the years. Hospitals and laboratories are working endlessly to help protect and treat us human beings as best as possible. Many conditions are now more treatable than ever before, such as diabetes and heart disease. Cancer is now treated and life expectancy has risen. There is a price to this cure though, medical waste has become a real issue to face for our environment directly affecting our health. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), medical facilities create between 600,000 to one million tons of medical waste each year. Approximately 15% of this waste poses environmental risks.
Medical waste comes from several sources. Their names alone can reveal the environmental danger. Sources include sharps which are scalpels, needles and other pointed instruments. Blood and blood products, laboratory cultures from diagnostics and pathological waste are further sources. Chemicals used in x-rays and chemotherapy pose risk as well. The main concern with these medical wastes is that they can introduce diseases such as HIV-AIDS into the environment. Immediate contact is the greatest danger of all.
In the late 1980’s there was an incident of syringe wash ups on the beaches along the East Coast of the United States, which were mistakenly attributed to health care facilities. In response to this, the government passed The Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) in 1988, with the EPA monitoring medical waste. Infectious waste is defined as solid waste that contains pathogens with sufficient virulence and in enough quantity that exposure can contract infectious disease of a susceptible human or animal to the solid waste. Medical waste if defined as infectious waste and other waste that contains or can be mixed with infectious waste.
Sharps must be contained in puncture resistance, rigid containers made of materials which may be made of rigid plastic or metal, designed to prevent loss of content and labeled bio hazardous waste. Other infectious waste must also be contained in sturdy packaging following strict standards. There are many companies which provide disposal service for bio medical waste. Examples are Waste Management Company and XMed Inc. These companies adhere to strict regulations via the EPA. They must dispose of the waste safely and follow the program regulations as stated in the MWTA Act. This act has expired in the early 1990’s, but each state is still responsible for establishing its own classification and management guidelines for medical waste. In addition, the staff workers which are in direct contact either through working facility or transport are also protected by OSHA, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Toxic chemicals and radioactive materials used in x-rays and other treatments are termed as Health Care Risk Waste instead of medical waste. Waste is identified due to its hazardous nature (biodegreadable, chemical, or radioactive). This is necessary for proper segregation, so that only those wastes needing special treatment and handling are treated. Wastes that are classified as infectious may be treated prior to disposal. Some of these technologies include incineration, steam sterilization, dry heat thermal treatment, chemical disinfection, irradiation, and enzymatic (biological) process among others. However, most treatment technologies cannot process chemical or radioactive waste. Many of these wastes can be treated with either incineration (hazardous waste incinerators) or chemically neutralized where feasible.
Medical waste is a diverse problem which is dealt with ongoing and it is ever changing due to new medical procedures being introduced each and every day. The key factor starts with proper identification of all medical waste so it can be handled and disposed of properly.