Over the years in picking up beach trash, I have picked up 5 needles, numerous nylon gloves, tampax, condoms, bloody bandages, band-aids, Q-tips, toothbrushes, contact lens solutions, pills and injectors. Medical waste is loosely defined as any item that comes into contact with body fluids. Items that have been saturated and have more than trace amounts of body fluids need to be properly contained, treated, and disposed of as they carry the potential risk of spreading diseases and viruses.
The World Health Organization classifieds medical waste as:
- Sharps: including needles and syringes, lancets (what you prick with to get blood) Auto-injectors (epinephrine and insulin pens. This has been picked up in my alley)
- Bodily Fluids
- Others (sanitary waste)
Before the 1980’s, the regulations around medical waste disposal were pretty loose. The rise of the AID’s epidemic and news that used syringes were washing up on our shores led to the need to create strict regulations on the disposal of waste that has the potential to spread disease and harm the environment. But just because there are now rules and regulations around medical waste disposal does not mean that there are not additional steps we can take to ensure that these materials are having the least impact on the environment.
I just Gotta Eco Ya
- 2 million tons of medical wastes are produced each year in the US. Majority is from hospitals, doctor’s offices including dental and veterinarian, research facilities, laboratories and pharmaceutical companies.
- $230 billion worth of prescription drugs used in the USA will be discharged into our sewage, landfills and waterways.
- 80% of US streams contain small amounts of human medicines
- 8 billion needles, syringes and lancets are discarded every year at home or in public places (Coalition For Safe Community Needle Disposal)
- 80% of US streams contain small amounts of human medicines.
- 1987-1988- The Syringe Tide in New Jersey caused 50 miles of beach to be closed. This was caused by the Fresh Kills Landfill. Cost for cleanup $1 Million
- 2000- contaminated syringes caused 21 million cases of hepatitis B, 2 million hepatitis C infections, and 260,000 cases of HIV worldwide (World Health Organization)
- 2008- A Pennsylvania dentist with a second home at the Jersey Shore admitted today to dumping needles and other medical waste in the Atlantic Ocean, causing beaches in Avalon to shut for five days in 2008. (NJ)
- 2011- Hawaii-rainstorms washed medical waste and other trash out of a hillside landfill’s holding pond right into the ocean…’workers were still plucking hypodermic needles, vials filled with blood and urine, and other hospital waste from the beach. (Take Part)
- 2012- State Department of Environmental Protection officials say the beaches were closed early Saturday afternoon after roughly 50 syringes were found. They were among various debris that also included large amounts of eel grass, wood and some plastics (Source)
- 2015- Los Angeles, CA- Dockweiler State Beach has been closed until further notice after medical waste, including condoms, tampon applicators and hypodermic needles, from a sewer pipe washed ashore. El Segundo area beaches were also closed as crews picked up 200 pounds of unsanitary objects. (KABC)
- 650,000 Pounds of Medical Waste by China per year. (Wilson Center)
There are 2 main paths for the treatment-disposal of materials. They are either taken to an incinerator or an autoclave facility.
The preferred method with the least impact on the environment is having it treated by an autoclave. These devises use pressurized air and steam to sterilize the waste and can be used to treat 90% of medical waste. The waste is then shredded, reducing its volume significantly, and taken to a landfill. One company is taking steps further by taking treated and shredded sharps and creating pellets called PELLA-DRX that can then be used in the construction of roads and buildings.
Unused medications and the impact they present to the environment is significant. Common practice for disposing medications has been to either flush them down the toilet or mix them with coffee grounds and add them to the trash. The aim was to prevent dangerous medications from getting into the wrong hands. However, adding them to your garbage does not guarantee that the drugs won’t be found and ingested, and flushing them down the toilet may be leading to some negative impacts to the environment and aquatic life.
Most of our medications enter waterways through human refuse and the flushing of unused or expired medications. The drugs are not completely absorbed through our bodies which leads to some trace amounts entering the water system. However, by purposely flushing unused medications you are adding much higher concentrated doses to the environment. Many water treatment plants are not capable of removing the chemicals from the water, which results in the chemical compounds and hormones coming in contact with the ecosystem. An Inside Science story wrote about a study that found these trace chemicals were altering the behavior and physical traits of fish which could lead to disruptions in the natural ecosystem.
These chemicals make an appearance again when we consume them in our drinking water. Although there are currently no studies that have found any effects on humans who have consumed these trace amounts found in our water supply, why not take steps to reduce the amounts being added in the first place?
So what can we do? Talk to your local municipality or health department on information for local drop-off programs. The DEA also has authorized collection sites across the country. Visit their site for information on their annual drug take-back days.
If you don’t have easy access in a local take-back program, some companies offer a mail-back program where containers can be shipped to you and then sent back when filled to be properly treated and disposed of. Look for companies that offer some sort of manifest as proof of destruction.