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Medical Waste: Background and Environmental Guidelines

October 5, 2021

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Medical Waste: Background and Environmental Guidelines

Medical Waste: Background and Environmental Guidelines. Medical waste has been defined as a subset of wastes that is generated at any facility involving health care. These can include but are not limited to: hospitals, physician’s offices, blood banks, dental practices, veterinary clinics/hospitals, medical laboratories, and medical research facilities. However, there are other organizations that are involved with medical waste that are not considered to be medical but do have medical waste including but not limited to: coroners, funeral homes, tattoo parlors, and body piercing businesses. Medical waste is generally described as any blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials.

Background: Medical Waste: Background and Environmental Guidelines

In the 1980s, medical wastes were washing up on the shores and beaches of several east coast areas. The alarm for seeing such things as hypodermic needles on the beaches prompted Congress to enact the two-year federal program called MWTA of 1988. The program allowed the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to create a set of medical waste regulations for medical waste disposal and gather information on the potential of disease-causing medical waste and the risk of public exposure. Since that time the individual states have taken over and created their own procedures, requirements, and laws for the proper handling, labeling, transport, and disposal of medical waste.

Epidemiological studies have shown that most of the liquids or solid wastes from healthcare facilities or research laboratories isn’t more infectious than standard residential waste. While hospital wastes do have a larger number of species of bacteria than residential waste, they found that residential waste was more heavily contaminated. The studies have also shown that use of traditional disposal methods by healthcare facilities using decontamination on site have not caused any disease transmission in the facility or the community. This does exclude injuries via sharps and therefore requires that sharps be identified and precautions taken so that they are rendered harmless before disposal. Due to public concerns, there are local, state, and federal regulations on the management and disposal of medical waste. 

Environmental Guidelines

Categorizing the types of medical wastes includes those that are both non-infectious and potentially infectious. The EPA initially created a standard of identification and handling and disposal procedures, with the individual states taking over the responsibilities for their states. The categories are referred to as Regulated Medical Waste (RMW) and includes specific guidelines and procedures for each type.

In addition to identifying and categorizing, local and state guidelines also include defined methods for transportation using the Federal DOT (Department of Transportation) requirements, and both federal and state OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guidelines for the safety of staff working in facilities where there is potential exposure and/or transmission.

A majority of states have similar requirements for the handling, labeling, storage, and transportation of medical waste, however, there are some differences in the disposal method requirements. All state guidelines result in the transition of medical waste so that it is rendered harmless, the differences may exist in the methods used. Healthcare facilities are required to dispose of medical wastes within a specific time period to avoid accumulation, have storage areas that are well ventilated and inaccessible to unauthorized personnel and to pests, all containers housing medical waste must be puncture-resistant and leak-proof, and to comply with all laws regarding the health and safety of the environment.

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