Wherever there are people, there is medical waste. It is generated in small quantities in many locations. These include:
You might be surprised to see some of those facilities on the list. Even dentists? Yes. Old style dental fillings were a mercury amalgam (alloy of mercury and other materials). While mercury is rarely employed in today’s fillings, dentists offices still deal with mercury waste when old fillings or teeth are removed. Regulatory agencies keep an eye on dentists offices as generators of hazardous waste containing mercury and lead. They also produce waste cotton and plastic which may be contaminated with body fluids as well as sharps common in other medical facilities such as scalpels, lancets, needles, and syringes. Funeral homes and mortuaries also product sharps waste.
Home healthcare providers are in a special situation. When the patient and/or family produce medical waste at home with no nurses or assistants involved, the waste is under no special regulation. It can be disposed of as regular household waste as far as the law is concerned. When a home healthcare provider is employed, it must employ waste management practices similar to those used in doctors’ offices.
Waste from different facilities may be subject to different rules. In the state of Texas, for instance, businesses that generate less than 50 pounds per month of medical waste as classified as small quantity generators (SQG) while those that generate over 50 pounds per month are large quantity generators. The two types are subject to different rules for transport of the waste and on-site treatment.
Pathogens in medical waste pose a disease risk, and if the disease is contagious (or if the waste is released over a large area), a potential public health problem. The reason we treat medical waste before disposal is to substantially reduce (for all practical purposes eliminating it) of disease transmission. Diseases caused by improper disposal of waste include parasitic infection, lung infection, Bacterial Meningitis, HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, fungal infections, and Bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream)
The EPA has said that, in general, risks posed by medical waste are greater for health care workers than for the general public. This is because the maximum disease-causing risk is at the point of generation and over time diminishes.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states "no epidemiologic evidence suggests that traditional waste-disposal practices of health-care facilities (whereby clinical and microbiological wastes were decontaminated on site before leaving the facility) have caused disease in either the health-care setting or the general community."
Medical waste can also include non-infectious hazardous components. These might be materials that are deemed hazardous by their ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity to living organisms. Hospitals produce radioactive waste because radioactive materials are used in both diagnosis and therapy. Engineers have ways of treating waste to reduce those risks, too.
What is the most dangerous type of waste? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the medical waste that is most risky for disease transmission is microbiological wastes (e.g., cultures and stocks). The most risky for injuries is sharps.
In the writing of permits and of operations plans, engineers might conduct a risk assessment that includes a projection or prediction of waste risks at points in the handling process. The variability of medical waste coming into the facility may render this risk assessment questionable, but it is often the only thing operators and regulators have.