Hospitals, clinics, and private medical practices all are capable of generating a prodigious amount of medical waste. Much of this waste may be considered hazardous, including: medical needles and syringes (known as “sharps”), laboratory stocks and cultures, any waste containing blood or blood products, and any waste that is generated by patients themselves. Historically, most medical waste contractors destroyed their cargo via incineration, but there has been a gradual movement away from this method in recent years due to health concerns. There are still many different kinds of toxins present in the smoke that results from medical waste incineration, and even pollution control specifically calibrated for medical waste is unable to filter out all of the contaminants. After the incineration process is completed, the solid remains are taken to local landfills, where the toxins eventually find their way down into the water table.
In an attempt to curb pollution resulting from medical waste, the Environmental Protection Agency has shut down several large medical incinerators in favor of seeking alternative waste disposal methods. Other options include chemical disinfectants, steam sterilization, and irradiation. In recent years, scientists have also developed biological processes utilizing enzymes capable of breaking down large quantities of hazardous biological and medical waste into less harmful components.
With such profound ramifications for the environment, it’s no surprise that medical waste is tracked at every stage of its development. In 1988, Congress passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) in direct response to the massive quantities of medical waste that had begun appearing on New Jersey shores in the mid-1980s. The MWTA categorized several different types of medical waste and mandated that all medical waste produced in the United States must be tracked all the way from its origin to its proper disposal. This was meant to combat illegal dumping that had severely impacted New Jersey’s tourism industry.
While the national version of the Medical Waste Tracking Act received federal funding for only two years, many states now have similar laws on the books to keep local medical facilities from dumping their waste or otherwise disposing of it in a manner that could cause great harm to local residents. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to search for methods that will maximize efficiency in healthcare delivery while maintaining patient and resident safety. New grants have offered incentive for researchers who improve upon the biological waste processing methods, which could have enormous implications for almost every kind of conventional waste, from blood to furniture.