regulated medical waste

April 22, 2020

Importance of biohazardous waste disposal

About 30 years ago, syringes washed up on the shores of 5 east coast beaches creating awareness of the need for regulation of biohazardous waste disposal. In time, this resulted in states developing regulatory requirements for generators on how to handle the disposal of medical waste.

Fast forward to today and new viruses, such as Ebola and COVID-19, raise public concern around disease transmission and special handling that is required for disposal of biohazardous waste. In light of those concerns, now it is more important than ever for healthcare workers to familiarize themselves with proper management and disposal of biohazardous medical waste.

What Is Biohazardous Medical Waste?

Although there is no universally accepted definition of medical waste, most federal and state agencies differentiate those wastes that have the potential for causing infection and have regulations around the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of them.

Biohazardous medical waste is often used interchangeably with such terms as regulated medical waste, biomedical waste or infectious waste, and may also vary in state regulations. Biohazardous waste is any waste saturated with liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM) that has the potential to cause harm or infect humans.

Biohazardous waste includes, but is not limited to:

  • “Red bag waste”: items saturated or visibly contaminated with blood or other potentially infectious materials: bandages, gauze, personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns, goggles, plastic tubing
  • Sharps waste: needles, scalpels, syringes, lancets and any other object which was exposed to potentially infectious material and is capable of puncturing human skin (e.g., broken glass)
  • Pathological (or anatomical) waste: limbs, specimens, tissue samples (decanted of preservatives)
  • Trace chemotherapy wastes: masks, gloves and gowns, empty vials, empty intravenous bags, tubing and bottles, which were used in the administration of chemotherapeutic drugs
  • Laboratory wastes: cultures and stocks that contain human disease-causing agents

Who Generates Biohazardous Waste?

Every year, approximately 2.6 million tons of medical waste is generated, with a large majority coming from healthcare facilities, such as hospitals, doctors offices, dentists, research facilities, veterinarians and surgery centers. And healthcare facilities are not alone. Tattoo parlors and funeral homes also generate biohazardous waste.

How Is Biohazardous Medical Waste Regulated?

Regulations are in place to help reduce the risk of injury and infection during handling, at the point of collection and transport for ultimate disposal. Several federal bodies have regulations concerning different aspects of biohazardous waste management, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

OSHA has a number of regulations related to the safe handling of biohazardous waste to limit the risk of spreading bloodborne pathogens (BBP) in the workplace. After collection, biohazardous waste should be properly packaged to meet DOT regulations for transport. Both agencies have training requirements for staff to ensure staff safety.

At the state level, there are various regulatory authorities that provide more specific definitions of materials that fall into the category of biohazardous wastes. For example, many states have additional definitions that include chemotherapeutic waste, pathological waste, pharmaceutical waste, as well as information on how to safely dispose of cultures and stocks.

While biohazardous waste generated in healthcare facilities and businesses is regulated, consumer-generated biohazardous waste is exempt from regulation in most states. However, there are many programs available to encourage consumers to choose biohazardous waste disposal methods that minimize risk to their community.

How Is Biohazardous Waste Treated?

There are a variety of treatment methods for the disposal of biohazardous waste; the two most common methods are:

  1. Autoclaving: Waste is subjected to a timed, high-temperature, high-pressure steaming process to render any infectious agents neutral, after which the waste is ready for disposal and taken to a landfill or waste-to-energy facility. Autoclaving is the most common form of treatment.
  2. Incineration: Waste is subjected to high temperatures to promote combustion or burning, and the remaining ash is then sent to the landfill for disposal. Certain materials such as pathological wastes, non-hazardous waste pharmaceuticals and trace chemotherapeutic wastes should be segregated and incinerated to ensure proper destruction.

Stericycle helps healthcare organizations compliantly manage biohazardous waste to ensure staff and environmental safety. Visit www.stericycle.com/en-us/solutions/regulated-waste-disposal/biohazardous-medical-waste to learn more.

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