Having to watch your step as pockets of syringes and hazardous debris appear in the sand underfoot is not exactly how most of us picture the famous Jersey Shore. We think of pristine waterfronts and yodeling frat boys. Yet, this August a lifeguard found three dozen diabetic syringes buried in the sand at Island Beach State Park. Officials speculate that they washed up from the sewer system, but a more specific source cannot be identified. Wherever they came from, it’s bad for human and animal health, bad for tourism and bad for the environment to have medical waste debris wash up on shore where people walk and play.
New Jersey has had problems over the years with medical waste washing up on its beaches. 1987 and 1988 are famous in New Jersey history, because the state lost more than a hundred days of beach tourism due to medical waste dumping on the shores. It’s estimated that $1 trillion tourist dollars were lost because of unsafe beach conditions. Medical waste debris floated to shore so frequently and in such great quantities because, at the time, hospitals and waste generators were less regulated, only regulated remotely by federal environmental branches. Waste facilities would end up disposing of their waste illegally, much like the infamous environmental villains in Erin Brokovich. Unfortunately, dumping bio-hazardous material into the raw sewage waste stream makes it impossible to pinpoint the perpetrators, and it ends up compromising the health of innocent beach goers when the syringes make it back to civilization.
In response to the 1987 syringe overflow on the beaches, New Jersey implemented the New Jersey Comprehensive Regulated Medical Waste Management Act. This law created state-regulated guidelines to track, inspect and monitor the waste disposal practices of medical facilities and waste generation plants. It included taking inventory of available treatment sites and technologies, researching waste generation rates, identifying county disposal capacity, exploring the possibility of recycling and incineration, and establishing a system for regular inspections. For example, a waste generator that processed more than 1,000 pounds of medical waste per year would be inspected twice a year.
For years, the problem seemed to be held at bay, as no other major medical waste incidents compromised the safety of Jersey shores. However, with the recent incident, though as of yet only a small quantity of syringes, Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone (D-6th) has decided to tackle the problem right away by reintroducing the Medical Waste Management Act of 2013. His goal, he says, is to crack down on medical waste polluters with disposal regulations and stricter enforcement of these already established laws. It would also educate consumers on safe individual syringe disposal and allow for greater medical waste tracking. The Sierra Club and Clean Ocean Action jumped on board to support the act, stressing that the problem needs to be addressed before it gets any worse.
Whether the Medical Waste Management Act of 2013 truly differs from the original or whether it adds amendments to the original document is not entirely clear, though there seem to be some new provisions, including:
- Specific requirements for waste generators and disposers to register with the EPA and comply with all labeling, packaging and storage requirements
- Approval of civil and police enforcement to prevent medical waste dumping
- Compliance with the EPA, including providing resources necessary for them to take swift action in their investigations
- Grants for local non-profits, governments and private entities to increase access to safe disposal
- An annual report to Congress on the state of medical waste management
Either way, hopefully the political force and attention now being placed on the importance of safe medical waste disposal will ensure greater oversight and more effective enforcement in the future for New Jersey’s famous shore. Medical waste disposal is a national issue, so New Jersey’s methods of dealing with it may provide greater insight to the conversation overall.