A Look at the Specialized World of Medical Waste Management

A Look at the Specialized World of Medical Waste Management

Not everyone is aware that waste generated at health care facilities isn’t handled in the same way as ordinary household waste. Because of its particular qualities and associated risks, medical waste, like hazardous waste or other specialized forms of waste, requires special processing techniques in order to be disposed of safely.

Read on to learn more about this unique waste category.

What exactly is medical waste?

syringeMedical waste is broadly defined as any waste that is produced at hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, dental practices, blood banks, and veterinary facilities, as well as at medical research facilities like laboratories. Naturally, this includes a wide range of items.

Discarded surgical gloves and instruments, culture dishes and other glassware used in a laboratory environment, discarded needles and lancets, used bandages, and removed body organs are all common examples of medical waste.

The Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 offers a further definition of medical waste, describing it as any solid waste that is produced when human beings or animals are diagnosed, treated, or immunized; when biologicals are produced or tested; or when research into the above areas is conducted.

Is medical waste hazardous?

While medical waste as a broad category is considered to be harmful, in fact, only a small percentage of medical waste fits the definition of hazardous waste. According to the World Health Organization, about 10-25 percent of the medical waste generated worldwide is hazardous – that is, either toxic, radioactive, or infectious.

The remaining bulk of medical waste is similar to domestic waste, consisting of plastic packaging, food preparation, office waste, and other items that haven’t come into contact with patients.

However, unless there is a clear segregation system in place for dealing with these two different types of medical waste independently, the entire volume of waste generated by a health care facility is considered to be hazardous. This is because there is always the chance that the non-hazardous portion may have come into contact with or been contaminated by some of the harmful material.

What risks does medical waste carry?

One of the most direct risks associated with medical waste is that individuals who come into contact with it may be injured or infected. In addition to infection, those who are exposed are potentially at risk for such things as radiation burns or pharmaceutical poisoning if medical waste is not handled properly during the processing and disposal processes.

At-risk groups include medical staff, patients and their visitors, support workers at health care facilities, workers at the facilities that dispose of medical waste, and the general public (who may be exposed to the waste in proximity to health care facilities). Sharps are particularly dangerous in this way. Syringe needles or other sharps are a significant cause of injuries when they are not safely collected.

Medical waste can also pose a threat to the environment if its disposal is not controlled. For example, if medical waste is dumped in uncontrolled areas, then soil and underground waters may become contaminated. Likewise, the incineration of medical waste without adequate filtration can lead to air pollution and illnesses in nearby populations.

How is medical waste disposed of?

Incineration is currently the most common disposal method for medical waste. However, as mentioned above, the potential release of pollutants through incineration is a significant concern.

Image by carburesGroup | Flickr

For example, when waste containing chlorine is incinerated, this can produce furans and dioxins, which are known human carcinogens. Modern incinerators that are equipped with special gas-cleaning equipment and that can operate at temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius meet the current international emission standards for furans and dioxins.

Unfortunately, many health care facilities worldwide do not have access to incinerators of this caliber. However, other options for dealing with medical waste exist as alternatives to incineration, primarily chemical treatment and internal mixing techniques.

These methods include autoclaving, in which waste is treated with high pressure steam in a closed chamber so that it can be recycled or safely disposed of. Another method is microwaving, which sterilizes waste using microwave radiation to create steam and neutralize biologicals. Finally, there is chemical disinfection, which is often used to treat liquid medical waste.

Different facilities will use different disposal methods depending on where they are located, what types of waste they primarily produce, and what the local laws and regulations surrounding medical waste processing are. In the US, the Medical Waste Tracking Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act are the two primary pieces of legislation which deal with the handling of medical waste.

What business opportunities are associated with medical waste?

The current value of the global medical waste industry is over $10 billion. By 2020, that figure is expects to grow to $13 billion. This means that significant opportunities exist for solution providers who can meet the industry’s high level of regulation to offer practical methods and solutions for medical waste disposal.

Such providers would relieve medical providers of the burden of handling their own waste. Some of the industry’s major operators in the US currently include firms like BioMedical Waste Solutions, Sharps Compliance, and Waste Management, Inc.

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