In every hospital or medical facility, there is an unseen potential problem lurking in the corners: medical waste. Medical waste is a broad term to imply any byproduct of a medical procedure, and it becomes a problem when it is improperly handled or disposed of. It is not a sexy subject, but a very important one because managing medical waste properly means maintaining human health and environmental integrity. The consequences to mismanaging medical waste can vary from a mild warning to widespread health problems caused by transferable diseases, environmental pollution and even possibly death.
What Is Medical Waste?
There are many categories of medical waste, and the term can be differently defined according to specific state regulations, but in general, medical waste is any solid waste generated by the diagnosis, immunization or treatment of humans or animals. Medical waste can also be produced during research or testing.
Types Of Medical Waste
Infectious: Anything that can easily transfer disease, for example, materials contaminated by blood, infectious agents, human waste, bodily fluids, infected animals, and contaminated materials like swabs, bandages and disposable medical tools.
Pathological: Body parts and animal carcasses.
Sharps: Needles, syringes, scalpels and blades, etc.
Chemicals: Mercury, solvents and disinfectants, etc.
Pharmaceuticals: Expired, contaminated or unused drugs and vaccines, etc.
Genotoxic: Highly hazardous mutagenic or carcinogenic drugs, such as those used in the treatment of cancer patients.
Radioactive: Glassware contaminated with radioactive elements, etc.
Heavy metals: Broken glassware with contaminated elements, such as a mercury thermometer.
What Happens With Improper Disposal
Taking care of medical waste properly is extremely important because no one wants these very hazardous and toxic materials to end up infecting medical workers, patients or janitors, or to end up leaking out from a landfill or washing up on a beach. These, however, are all very real possibilities when medical waste isn’t carefully handled.
Human Infection: Health care waste often includes potentially dangerous microorganisms that can infect patients, nurses, doctors or the general public if not disposed of meticulously. What’s worse is that a person infected by medical waste could potentially spread the bacteria to others when leaving the hospital.
Sharps: Though sharps make up only about 1% of all medical waste, they are one of the most common forms of disease transmission. Once a syringe is used, it is contaminated and should not be reused, but unfortunately, when syringes are not disposed of appropriately, they make it into general waste facilities or dumps, where they are sometimes scavenged for and reused, making the spread of disease much more common, especially among drug users. In addition, used syringes can transfer disease even if spilled or washed up on shore without intentional usage.
Toxic Pollution: If medical waste makes it to a landfill and the landfill is poorly constructed, or poorly maintained, toxic chemicals can leach out into the surrounding environment, contaminating soil and groundwater nearby. Any time toxic chemicals or pharmaceuticals make it to groundwater, it is a health hazard because that water becomes contaminated drinking water. Another way of disposing of medical waste is incineration, but the negative health effects of this method include releasing carcinogenic materials out into the air, which can especially affect those in close vicinity.
How To Minimize Risk
The risks for improper medical waste management far outweigh the costs associated with properly training workers, setting state and federal standards, researching safer ways of disposing of waste, using the latest technology to minimize risk, and enforcing strict regulation to adhere to safe standards for the health and safety of all, including regular inspections of all health care facilities; these are all ways to ensure that medical waste does not end up infecting or contaminating people or the environment.