From the 1970s, legislation was formed to limit the amount of toxic waste being released in our air. Whether that be toxic waste from a gas, object, or liquid, acts such as the Environmental Protection Act and Toxic Substances Control Act were put in place to end pollution of U.S air and waterways. One would think these acts would also apply to medical waste and it does, yet the world still faces a problem with used medical equipment being thrown out improperly and ending up in places it should not be.
In 1988, U.S citizens were in desperate need of a regulation to stop bags of medical syringes from washing up on their shores. The Medical Waste Tracking Act with the aid of the previously mentioned Environmental Protection Act was formed and for some time appeared to be effective. Medical facilities were forced to screen their used equipment through a series of treatment technologies. Medical waste was being properly disposed of and properly sanitized, but this only lasted 2 years. Afterwards, it was back to normal where no hospital, pharmacy, or private healthcare facility had to follow specific steps of instructions for their health waste.
According to the World Health Organization, “Every year an estimated 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, but not all of the needles and syringes are properly disposed of afterwards.” Health care is supposed to save our lives, and it does, but what happens to the waste that’s formed from it? Improper disposal of needles, syringes, thermometers, etc. can lead to sharp-inflicted injuries, radiation/chemical burns, and an excessive amount of air pollution. Numerous laws were established with the goal of reducing improper medical waste. But still, in 2010, needles that were not properly disposed of after injection resulted in 33,800 new HIV cases. Not only is health care waste a threat to the environment, it is a threat to public health.
Data recorded from 24 different countries discovered that only about 58% of health care facilities have a system set in place for medical waste. Medical waste alone produces 6 million tons of waste per year and though 85% of it is considered not hazardous, it is the 15% that is the source of harm for the environment and humans. Each and every medical waste product ending up in the environment can directly release toxins and pathogens into the air. Pathogens can carry bacteria that in the past have been associated with various epidemics. The most common way to kill bacteria is through exposing it to extreme heats of around 850-1100 degrees celsius, but only modern incinerators can do so.
The state of Illinois implemented requirements for Potentially Infectious Medical Waste (PIMW). PIMW was yet another extension of The Environmental Protection Act. It was very important to find a way to dispose of used medical equipment without it infecting the nearby environment in any way, shape, or form. PIMW’s requirements give a step by step list of protocols that each used medical item must go through to ensure proper disposal. For instance, medical waste must be placed in a hazardous bag and removed of all infectious material to prevent it spreading disease in a landfill. That’s only in the state of Illinois. Majority of American states have their own set of instructions for health/medical waste, but not all.
Although Illinois may have a proper system set in place, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world does. The World Health Organization says that the reason the world still struggles with health care waste is due to an excessive lack of awareness. Many countries, especially those impoverished are generating towering rates of health waste and without knowledge of or the resources to dispose of it eco-consciously.
Although the majority of us may not work for the government, or have the power to change laws and regulations, we do have the power to advocate and encourage change. Stricter health waste laws can significantly decrease the amount of toxins in our environment. Simply encouraging the increase in high temperature incinerators in medical waste landfills can stop most in not all pathogens from entering our environment. Or even asking your nearby healthcare provider to have a small bin dedicated to used medical supplies can have a huge impact.
Medical waste is a topic many have never heard of or even bother to care about, but it’s a problem growing quickly, especially in a global pandemic. Whether you work in a medical care facility or not, it’s important to know your state’s medical waste laws. You may not use or need medical supplies, but that doesn’t mean others don’t. The poor disposal of medical supplies in your state could affect the air and water quality you use. If you can’t physically do something, spread awareness to your peers and anyone you know. Actions travel fast, but words travel faster. Each and everyone of us has the power to make a change for the better good of ourselves and the world.
Written By: Emily Malorny
“Potentially Infectious Medical Waste General Requirements.” Illinois.gov, https://www2.illinois.gov/epa/topics/waste-management/factsheets/Pages/general-regulations.aspx.
“Health-Care Waste.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/health-care-waste. “Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/medical/web/html/tracking.html.