How Safe is the Public from Medical Waste?

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Medical waste comes in many different forms and often special measures need to be taken in order to safely dispose of it. This waste comes from health care facilities such as blood banks, veterinary clinics, hospitals, research laboratories and dental offices. Most medical waste may be contaminated by bodily fluids like blood or infectious materials that need to be properly regulated.

There are two common ways to dispose of medical waste, incineration and autoclave treatment.

Incineration is used to treat 90 percent of surgical wastes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this method is prohibited in many states including California. Incineration uses fire to burn waste and reduce volume. It is becoming less popular because of the stringent emissions that could cause poor air quality.


Autoclave treatment is a safer method. An autoclave is a chamber that pressurizes with elevated temperatures to destroy possibly threatening microbes. As the waste goes through an autoclave, the after product can be thrown away regularly. Many hospitals use autoclaves to sterilize surgical equipment.

Other common methods of medical disposal include thermal treatment, steam sterilization, electro pyrolysis, and chemical mechanical systems.

Concern for potential health hazards of medical wastes grew in the 1980s after medical wastes were washing up on Atlantic coast beaches. All states follow different laws, but the United States is encouraged to follow the guidelines for medical waste management. The guidelines were created by the Council of State Governments and are shared through the EPA to encourage easy implementation of waste management.

The public must be aware of proper disposal of medical needles, especially those who use diabetes medication and EpiPens. Improper management of discarded needles pose a risk for the public and waste workers. Loose needles can cut open garbage bags and lead to accidental spreading of diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis.

Learn more to learn about proper needle disposal from the EPA.

The EPA has jurisdiction over medical waste treatment technologies in order to reduce infectious risks. This jurisdiction comes from the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Companies that create medical waste devices must get their product registered under FIFRA.

According to the World Health Organization, 85 percent of hospital waste is non-infectious and a majority of it is recyclable. Nonprofit Practice Greenhealth is working to help hospitals properly dispose of more recyclable materials.

Director of Performance and Sector Recognition at Practice Greenhealth Cecilia DeLoach Lynn told Waste 360, “Medical supplies coming into the operating room are fairly standard for a given facility, but over time, kits include what they can’t use anymore. We work with hospitals to reformulate so instead of routinely tossing clamps, gauze, sponges or devices, they change these kits to include only what clinicians need.”

Medical waste can be dangerous to both the environment and society if not properly handled. By following EPA’s guidelines, medical waste will become less of a problem.

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