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Dismissing Commonly Held Beliefs About Generated Medical Waste

Updated: May 16

General Medical Waste Beliefs

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Waste generated by healthcare providers is often described using a variety of terms, including infectious waste, medical waste, biohazard waste and more. States throughout the United States have come up with management and disposal regulations containing extensive, and often confusing, requirements for healthcare providers.

This, in turn, contributes to the belief that there’s a significant risk relating to medical waste if it’s not handled or disposed of properly. But is this really the case? It appears that an overreaction from the general public—caused by misleading media reports after a number of incidents involving medical waste washing up on a beach—has led to extensive statutes and regulations that are seemingly disproportionate to the actual risks involved.

Distorted Definitions of Medical Waste

Along with state regulations, there are three federal agencies that focus on solving medical waste issues: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the CDC lacks regulatory authority, it still issues notices and advisories that are often used in conjunction with OSHA, emphasizing infection control issues.

In fact, waste generated in hospitals and other healthcare facilities that is considered as “medical waste” is actually only about 15% of the total waste generated. However, concerns with the risks associated this type of waste is high because of the prevalence of extensive regulations. Although the EPA has laid a solid foundation, almost every state enforces a different set of rules and regulations, making it difficult to see with a clear set of eyes the true danger of particular types of waste.


Every state includes “sharps,” such as scalpels, needles and even lancets, in their definition of medical waste. These objects are all documented to present a potential risk for disease transmission in healthcare facilities. In fact, the improper disposal of sharps in Philadelphia, and everywhere else in the U.S., is responsible for about 80% of healthcare exposure injuries, making them the number-one risk for exposure among healthcare staff. The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was passed by congress in 2000; which requires that personnel use sharps safe devices. As a result, the incident rate of sharps injuries to health care workers has been reduced by more than 50%.

It’s obvious that sharps pose a great risk for exposure to bloodborne pathogens. However, a lack of information showing that public illnesses were caused by sharps exposure, has led many people to feel as if the regulations are not warranted. Growing concerns about medical waste is actually disproportionate with studies that explain how this type of waste doesn’t have any greater quality, or different types of microbiological agents, than what’s contained in medical waste. In fact, science shows that organisms die out and fail to survive in a dose that would lead to the transmission of disease.

Scientific Support

A position paper was published in 1992 by the Society for Hospital Epidemiology of America (SHEA), in which experts in the field of infections and the prevention of infection, tackle the issue of the perceived risks of different types of medical waste. They found that the quantity and volume of medical waste that had washed up on different beaches was actually very small. About 90% was plastic, glass and other debris. The CDC and the EPA only consider waste to be infectious if it contains a certain number of pathogenic organisms to cause illness. This list includes the following types of waste: pathological, microbiological, animal, blood and sharps.

Essentially, this means that everything doesn’t have to go into a red bag.

Although medical waste washing up on beaches might be an aesthetic issue that brings forth economic costs, the risk of disease transmission is “nonexistent” according to the SHEA report. The experts state: “The theoretical estimate that the factors for infection to occur in a sequence and a person will develop HIV infection from a needle on the beach is 1 in 15 billion to 1 in 390 trillion.” In addition, a different study showed that household waste consisted of more microbial contamination that hospital waste. And another study revealed that the concentration of organisms in hospital waste was significantly less than most household waste.

Why this Matters

A lot of facilities have to contract for pickup and disposal of medical waste disposal in Philadelphia, PA, and other major cities, at a hefty cost. In the future, however, there will be a higher number of medical facilities that no longer consider EMS-generated medical waste due to the additional cost to the facility, especially when much of what’s currently being thrown away into red bags doesn’t actually fall under the definition of medical waste by their state. It’s important for healthcare administrators to fully understand the state medical waste regulation, most importantly, the definitions. This should be incorporated in every facility’s exposure control plan and must be included into training for all departments and their members.

Being aware of the definitions of medical waste in your state is essential for your healthcare facility. A significant amount of money can be saved in costs for medical waste disposal if you stay informed about what is and what isn’t considered waste. Recognizing the difference between the true risks and the perceived risks, will help in lowering the levels of apprehension among various department personnel. All in all, regulations are still regulations, and whether they’re based on science or not, departments will still be held accountable to remain fully compliant.

Looking for a biohazard company in Philadelphia, Delaware or Maryland? Contact the professionals here at Choice MedWaste by filling out a contact form on our website, or by calling 302-766-7575 today.

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