Medical Waste Hospital Homicide
Imagine that you’ve just come indoors to cool off after a long day’s work mowing the lawn at a nearby veterinary clinic. You go to the kitchen sink, get a glass of ice water, sit down in front of the television for some rest and relaxation, and soon fall asleep. Hours later you awake from your pleasant nap and notice that you’re feeling a bit dazed. You try and open your blurry eyes but your vision seems to be skewed. Thinking that you must still be tired from your dozing, you stand up and begin to stretch yourself out. Upon standing, you feel a sudden dizziness, and you begin to feel a numbing, tingling sensation throughout your body. Your arms and legs begin to break out into a rash. Your vision narrows, and you start to black out.1 You try with futility to phone an ambulance, but your fingers cannot move to the correct buttons. You soon come to realize the hopelessness of your situation. You realize that if help doesn’t come soon, you may die. What you do not realize, however, is that the water you drank hours before was contaminated with mercury from an improperly disposed veterinary thermometer. What you do not realize is that you have been overcome by one of the most silent and elusive killers of our century.
Water contamination has long been part of our society and springs from many different foundations. Perhaps the most overlooked of all of these, however, is medical waste contamination. To look more closely at this problem, we must first establish a definition for medical waste itself. Specifically, medical waste (often known as clinical waste) refers to waste products that cannot be considered general waste. These wastes are usually produced in hospitals or other healthcare premises.2 Medical waste generally consists of; tissue, blood, bodily fluids, excretions, pharmaceutical products, bloody bandages, scalpels and needles.3 While it may appear evident that all of these materials are potentially hazardous to the human body, it is important to examine the precise reasons for why your health is at risk from this far-reaching environmental catastrophe. For example, take into account the total amount of waste generated by hospitals. In America alone, it is estimated that 40,000 tons of total waste are produced by hospitals.4 Approximately one fourth of this figure is considered to be, “risk waste” or medical waste. Therefore, an average of 10,000 tons of bio-hazardous waste is disposed of each year.5 This figure does not even take into account all of the veterinary clinics, dental offices, and other specialized healthcare facilities around the country which may possess any number of hazardous materials that must be disposed of in a safe and correct manner. If any one of these 20,000 pounds of dangerous disposables is incorrectly dispatched, it could lead to a serious health crisis on a national scale. Just four standard lab thermometers, when disposed of incorrectly through traditional waste measures, can contaminate a large lake by seeping through the soil at its banks. With soil and water contaminated, it is impossible to discern what meats, fish, and liquids are safe for digestion, and which could lead to death.
Scrapping medical waste is a costly procedure. It requires an average of 1,500 dollars to dispose of one ton of medical waste. That is quite a sum when you consider that the cost to throw away one ton of standard waste is about 250 dollars. In total, the United States averages a little more than 15 million dollars worth of expenditures on medical waste annually.6 Much of this figure is allocated for medical waste incineration plants. Incineration is the world’s number one disposal method for medical waste. In order to dispose of the waste in this manner, the bio-hazardous materials must first be shipped from a hospital to a MWI (Medical Waste Incinerator). Once the waste has arrived at the plant, it is portioned into smokestacks and hot-fired to kill any pathogens that may still exist on the disposables. The remaining ashes must then pass a sterilization test before they are expelled from the incinerator and dumped in various sites.7
Sadly, the mass incineration of medical waste does not come without cost. In the recent past it has come to light that the incineration of mercury produces a toxic vapor, which, upon contact with the atmosphere, can travel for many miles and contaminate the nearby areas with fumes that have been shown to cause debilitating diseases, such as cancer.8 Stericycle, the world’s largest MWI contractor, has battled countless lawsuits with individuals residing in the areas near their incinerators. These findings have led people to look for more health-conscious ways to dispose of clinical waste. One such alternative is called, “shredding and treating.” With this method, the medical wastes are finely shredded in high-capacity machines, and then either micro waved or chemically treated to erase any signs of a possible pathogen. Although this method is more environmentally friendly than incineration, it cost the hospitals a great deal more money to utilize it. Thus, the shredding and treating method is used for disposing of only a small fraction of medical waste.9
It is easy to see the impact that medical waste has on the environment. However, there is little legislation to combat these negative effects. In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to regulate emissions from medical waste incinerators. The rule outlined a new set of standards and guidelines for MWIs to reduce their emissions of pollutants such as mercury. Newly erected MWIs would have to control emissions using the maximum achievable control technology (MACT). The newly outlined MACT for mercury was an 85 percent reduction from typical uncontrolled emissions of mercury from MWIs.10 Though this mandate was a step in the right direction, the path chosen was soon lost. Outside of this specific measure there is essentially no other law on the subject. As time moves on and the earth becomes more, “green friendly,” perhaps there will be those who gain new ground on alleviating this growing problem. For now, however, this is a pressing concern that deserves much of our consideration.
Though the issue of medical waste does seem like an unstoppable menace, there are steps that any everyman can take to help. It is important that all bloodied bandages and dressings be sealed in a sturdy closed air container so that pathogens cannot escape. Diabetics must take care to return their used “sharps” to the hospital so that they may be correctly disposed of.11 Careless disposal of medical waste can affect anyone. Doctors, nurses, janitors, garbage men, and patients are all at immediate risk of incorrect disposal of medical waste, but the secondary risk of improper biohazard disposal encompasses every living thing on the planet; from the lowest levels of the food chain to the highest organisms on earth. If we do our part to be responsible with hazardous waste, we can keep our planet safe. If we can keep our planet safe, we can be safe on our planet.