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5 Things You Should Know About Medical Waste

Modern medicine is all about saving lives and improving health -- but the waste it generates may achieve the opposite effect. Whether you work in the medical industry or you engage in self-testing or self-treatment for some medical condition or other, be warned that the byproducts of those activities can create significant ecological and health dangers for your community. Here are five critical points you should keep in mind whenever you or your company produces medical waste.

1. The Term Covers a Lot of Ground

The term "medical waste" applies to a broad range of items left over from clinical testing, treatments, and other procedures. These items may include:

  • Blood, saliva, urine, and fecal samples
  • Used bandages or cotton balls
  • Syringes, needles, or any other sharp objects that have penetrated the body
  • Body parts removed during surgery
  • Discarded drugs and vaccines
  • Bacterial, viral, and fungal cultures
  • Used surgical gloves and masks

Any facility that creates such materials in the course of its operations is creating medical waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

2. Medical Waste Can Cause Medical Crises

Medical waste can spread disease to others who encounter or handle it, meaning that the used or discarded supplies you throw out could cause death or even a rash of deaths, depending on the substances you're sharing.

  • Needles, scalpels, lancets, and other objects collectively known as "sharps" may have traces of communicable blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C or HIV. Deadly bacteria can also be transferred in this fashion.
  • Discarded drugs that enter the local water supply without being removed through subsequent filtering can poison entire populations.
  • Some forms of medical waste, such as latex products or cultures used in allergy testing, could cause severe allergic reactions in individuals who encounter them.

3. A Variety of Businesses Generate Medical Waste

Perhaps the most obvious producers of medical waste are medical and veterinary clinics and hospitals, which routinely perform surgical procedures, take fluid samples for diagnostic testing, and administer drugs. But you may well be in another line of work that generates its share of medical waste as well. Examples include:

  • Pharmaceutical research facilities - These companies typically perform biochemical testing on humans and/or animals to determine the safety and effectiveness of their products (or their clients' products, if they work as an independent lab). The tests they run produce large amounts of blood-related and urine-related medical waste.
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturers - These facilities regularly use a variety of chemical compounds to create their products, the byproducts of which could be dangerous to the public. 
  • Public safety departments - Police and crime scene investigators must sometimes collect and process blood, dead bodies, drug paraphernalia, and other unpleasant items that could carry disease. 
  • Medical courier agencies - These companies specialize in the transport of clinical samples, surgical debris, and other medical materials from hospitals and clinics to off-site testing labs.

4. Homes Generate Medical Waste Too

Medical waste isn't just a problem for businesses; it could also be an issue within your own home. For instance, do you routinely test your blood sugar by pricking your finger? That bloody lancet or test strip counts as medical waste. Any drugs that you administer to yourself via syringe produce "dirty" needles. Bandages used to cover seeping wounds can be considered contaminated as well. Last but not least, if you regularly throw away expired or unneeded medicines, you could be creating a potential hazard for someone else.

5. Proper Disposal Is a Must

Medical waste requires special disposal procedures to keep it isolated from the public and to ensure that it is safely and thoroughly destroyed. This isn't just ethical practice -- it's also the law. Your state most likely has a medical waste disposal management program. Many private firms specialize in medical waste disposal and removal for business and households alike. If you only need to dispose of medical waste occasionally, ask your city administration about local laws and rules for safe removal.

As you see, medical waste can keep on doing harm long after the original issue being treated or tested for is resolved. That's why it's so important to be aware of the risks and engage the appropriate professional help and advice for denying these potentially lethal substances a second life.