Questions and Answers


1) What should I do if I have medical waste?

If you are not a regular producer but just have occasional or one-time waste, contact a medical waste disposal company that serves your area. You can find one in the phone book or an internet search or you can ask for referrals at a medical or veterinary clinic.

Don't bother asking the medical or veterinary clinic if you can put your waste in their disposal container. The medical waste company must know the origin and chain of custody of the waste. You can't piggy-back on someone else who generates waste.

Don't try to skirt regulations and dump your waste illegally. It's risky and unethical. Don't think you can "play dumb" if caught either. This rarely works

2) Some of our waste is just like the waste produced in other businesses that are not involved with health or wellness. It doesn’t seem fair that we should be subject to special regulations and expenses.

At most facilities - for-profit and non-profit alike - most of the waste will be similar to that produced at other businesses and residences. This is called municipal solid waste (MSW) and is usually sent to a landfill. There’s no special regulation of this type of waste generated at medical facilities if you maintain segregation of hazardous and regulated waste from routine waste. Additional cost may be a more elaborate collection system and in many cases, this cost is low.

Biomedical waste may be subject to greater regulation and disposal costs, but that's what our society has deemed fair. We do not want that waste to harm anyone.

3) Is it OK to use the term “toxic waste” occasionally?

No, as waste management professionals we need to be precise in our language. Waste is ‘toxic’ only if it is biologically harmful or fatal to a living organism when it gets inside the body. The US federal government definition of hazardous waste, (RCRA rules), lists four characteristics that might make a waste hazardous, and toxicity is one of them. So while it might be technically correct to call a material toxic waste, most potentially harmful waste you encounter is probably not toxic. Stick to the familiar categories just to be safe.

4) If the disposal is just going to be incineration, why can't I do that myself in my autoclave?

Even if you have a laboratory grade autoclave, you probably can't follow the best practices of waste incinerators. In particular, how will you handle the smoke or off-gas? Autoclaves are designed to sterilize equipment that is already clean, not to burn waste.

Having said that, a good deal of infectious waste is deactivated in hospital autoclaves. It can be done, but make sure the waste you put in the autoclave is appropriate for this type of treatment. Make sure it does not combust and produce large exhaust streams.

5) Does old prescription medication count as medical waste?

It depends on who you are. If you are an operating business - for profit or not-for-profit - then yes, pharmaceutical waste requires special treatment and disposal.

For household use, no. The drugs are potentially harmful to people and animals but they do not typically have live cultures. The disposal of medicines requires some special attention, though. It is usually legal to put them in the household trash (check your local waste authority to make certain), but responsible disposal calls for a little more attention. T he best practice of to mix them with coffee grounds, kitty litter, sawdust, or other repugnant material to make the medicine less appealing to pets, children, and interlopers who may be going through your trash. Put the mixture in a plastic bag and seal before putting everything in the large garbage bag or container. The EPA published guidelines on how individual citizens should get rid of medicines: https://archive.epa.gov/region02/capp/web/pdf/ppcpflyer.pdf

Some communities have Drug Take-Back Days during which they set up collection spots for old medicine.

6) Is medical waste really so bad?

Most of it is the same as household or office waste. But exposure to some types of waste can result in disease or injury to humans and assault on the environment. What makes medical waste dangerous? Waste that is infectious, genotoxic, or radioactive is of concern. Sharps waste can produce injuries, and any waste that has hazardous constituents or pharmaceuticals must be handled appropriately.

7) Is medical waste worse than nuclear waste?

blood in the garbage It probably doesn’t have the stigma with the general public that nuclear waste does, but really there is no general answer. Nuclear waste, which is more properly called radioactive waste, presents a huge range of hazard levels. Low-level radioactive waste might be only weakly radioactive. High-level rad waste can be very radioactive and should not be approached by humans without shielding. Infectious/biological waste likewise has a wide range of risk profiles.

8) Is dog manure medical waste?

No. It is more like what you normally flush down the toilet. Actually, you could flush dog manure down the toilet, but most municipal waste collection agencies will accept it in normal household trash. This waste contains e. coli and perhaps pathogens, but a limited amount of manure is deemed acceptable in the municipal solid waste stream that goes to a sanitary landfill.

Conclusion: either leave your dog manure on the lawn, in the woods, etc. or put it in your trash. Animal feces from laboratories is usually treated as pathological waste. It may have unusual components, and even if it doesn’t the waste management authorities at these facilities usually ask researchers to put manure in pathological waste containers.

9) Why is untreated sewage dangerous?

Untreated sewage is considered infectious because it is assumed to contain fecal matter, which has high levels of bacteria. There have been countless cases throughout history of people getting cholera or another illness from drinking (even accidently) untreated wastewater.

10) Do we try to eliminate bacteria?

No, it is in rare cases that anyone tries to eliminate bacteria. That is called sterilization, and some items (e.g. some medical equipment) are sterilized before use. But most bacteria is harmless to humans, and in any case, humans have bacteria all over them, so any place where there are people, there are bacteria. The human scalp has an estimated 1 million colony-forming units (CFU) per square centimeter, and even the forarm skin has 10,000 CFU per square centimeter.