Facts About Medical Waste
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Facts About Medical Waste

Poor management of health care waste potentially exposes health care workers, waste handlers, patients and the community at large to infection, toxic effects and injuries, and risks polluting the environment. It is essential that all medical waste materials are segregated at the point of generation, appropriately treated and disposed of safely.


What is Medical Waste

Thoughts of medical waste beckon images of red bio-hazard bags of potentially dangerous materials. Medical waste is solid waste created by diagnosing, treating or immunizing people or animals. It can also be the product of the research and testing of biological products. This term is defined specifically by the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. This definition includes, but is not limited to:

  • Bodily Fluid-soaked Bandages
  • Culture Dishes and other Glassware
  • Discarded Surgical Gloves and other personal Protective Equipment
  • Discarded Surgical Instruments
  • Discarded needles used to give shots or Draw Blood (e.g. Medical Sharps)
  • Cultures, Stocks, Swabs used to Inoculate Cultures
  • Removed Body Organs (e.g. Tonsils, Appendices, Limbs)
  • Discarded Lancets


Where Does Medical Waste Come From?

Two million tons of medical wastes are produced each year. Most of it comes from hospitals, but other sources include doctor’s offices, dental practices, research facilities, laboratories and veterinarian offices. Companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals also produce high amounts of this waste.


What are the categories of Medical Waste?

Medical waste can be identified by one of four different categories:

  • Infectious Waste
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Radioactive Waste
  • Other General Waste


Infectious Waste includes waste that has the possibility of causing infections to humans. It can include human or animal tissue (blood or other body parts), blood soaked bandages, discarded surgical gloves, cultures, stocks, or swabs to inoculate cultures. Much of this category, including human or animal tissue, can also be labeled as pathological waste, which can only be treated using specific methods. Pathological waste is either proven to contain pathogens, or could be perceived as containing pathogens.

Hazardous waste includes waste that has the possibility to affect humans in non-infectious ways. This type of waste includes sharps, which are generally defined as objects that can puncture or lacerate the skin, but can include needles and syringes, discarded surgical instruments such as scalpels and lancets, culture dishes and other glassware. Hazardous waste can also include chemicals, both medical and industrial. Some hazardous waste can also be considered infectious waste, depending on its usage and exposure to human or animal tissue prior to discard.

Radioactive waste includes waste resulting from nuclear medicine treatments, cancer therapies and medical equipment that uses radioactive isotopes. Pathological waste that is contaminated with radioactive material is treated as radioactive waste rather than infectious waste.

General Waste makes up at least 85% of all waste produced at medical facilities, and is no different from general household or office waste, and comprises of paper, plastics, liquids and any other materials that do not fit into the previous three categories.

The World Health Organization categorizes medical waste into:

  • Sharps
  • Infectious
  • Pathological
  • Radioactive
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Others (often sanitary waste produced at hospitals)

Sharp wastes make up most of the volume of medical wastes produced by SQGs. The next highest is blood and body fluids.


Where does Medical Waste go?

Medical wastes have traditionally been disposed of by the not-so-green-friendly method of incineration. Today a wide assortment of other processes, including steam sterilization, chemical disinfection and irradiation, are in use. Once medical waste has been decontaminated by any of these alternative methods, it usually ends up in landfills alongside regular municipal solid waste.

Managing under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), around 90 percent of medical waste is incinerated at roughly 2,400 medical waste incinerators (MWI) across the U.S. This incineration emanates a wide variety of pollutants into the air, including dioxins and furans, heavy metals (such as lead, mercury and cadmium) and carbon monoxide. However, alternatives facilities exist today that can address the environmental and health concerns associated with medical waste incineration.



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