Defining and Identifying Medical Waste

Medical waste disposal and management is a delicate and complicated undertaking, but it’s essential for the success (and good name) of your business.

No matter what type of generator you are a doctor’s office, clinic, dentist, tattoo parlor, veterinarian, funeral home, nursing home, laboratory, blood bank, etc. in order to build and enact a smart, functional management plan and practice, it’s crucial that you understand what you’re dealing with.

Before we can determine what to do about medical waste, or any of the varied challenges it might present, we need to make sure we’re able to first define and identify the problem.

Let’s start with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). It’s the major federal statute that addresses management of the nation’s wastes hazardous, municipal, industrial, and other types of solid waste, including medical waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority under RCRA to regulate the handling, storage, treatment, transportation, and disposal of all these waste types, though individual states and other federal agencies have also taken on that responsibility.

Regulated medical waste (RMW), also known as ‘biohazardous’ waste or ‘infectious medical’ waste, is in simple terms any waste that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids, or other potentially infectious materials.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the definition is:

Regulated Waste means liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious materials; contaminated items that would release blood or other potentially infectious materials in a liquid or semi-liquid state if compressed; items that are caked with dried blood or other potentially infectious materials and are capable of releasing these materials during handling; contaminated sharps; and microbiological wastes containing blood or other potentially infectious materials.

If the blood/body fluid can spill, splash, splatter or drip to get into an existing portal of entry it has the potential to infect.

Biohazard Bag

Now, despite all these seemingly straightforward definitions and explanations, there’s actually no explicit consensus on the types of medical wastes that should be designated as infectious or that might require special handling. There are, however, several key categories of waste that are typically classified as “regulated”.

Under the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 (MWTA), the EPA has listed seven types of medical waste (commonly referred to as “regulated waste types”) to be tracked. These are:

1.) Microbiological Wastes (cultures and stocks of infectious wastes and associated biologicals and microorganisms that can cause disease in humans; discarded cultures, culture dishes and devices used to transfer, inoculate and mix specimens, stocks, cultures, live and attenuated vaccines and associated items if they are likely to contain organisms likely to be pathogenic to healthy humans);

2.) Human Blood and Blood Products (including serum, plasma, and other blood components);

3.) Pathological Wastes of human origin (including tissues, organs, and body parts removed during surgery or autopsy, by trauma, studies, or another hospital procedure);

4.) Contaminated Animal Wastes (i.e., animal carcasses, body parts, and bedding exposed to infectious agents during medical research, pharmaceutical testing, or production of biologicals);

5.) Isolation Wastes (biological waste and discarded materials contaminated with blood, excretion, exudates or secretion from humans or animals who are isolated to protect others from highly communicable diseases);

6.) Contaminated Sharps (items that can penetrate skin or induce sub-dermal inoculation of infectious agents, puncture cardboard boxes and waste bags, sharps that have been used or meant to be used in human or animal care in laboratories, including hypodermic needles, syringes, Pasteur pipettes, capillary tubes, broken glass from the laboratory including slides and slide covers, razor blades, and scalpel blades); and

7.) Uncontaminated Sharps.

Other waste categories the EPA considers are: wastes from surgery or autopsy that were in contact with infectious agents (e.g., sponges, soiled dressings, drapes, surgical gloves, drainage sets); dialysis wastes that were in contact with blood; discarded medical equipment and parts that were in contact with infectious agents; and laboratory wastes that were in contact with infectious agents (e.g., laboratory coats, slides, and cover slips).

These are the waste types that the EPA has the authority to regulate, but keep in mind that each category typically has special handling requirements that may be state-specific; nearly all 50 states have enacted medical waste regulations. The OSHA, too, regulates several aspects of medical waste, the Department of Transportation (DOT) defines medical waste as a hazardous material, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) monitors it all very closely.

It all might seem a little daunting, but take comfort. Once you’re able to identify and define your problem, you can focus on the most important step in the process: your solution. For more information or assistance with handling your medical waste, contact Medical Waste Experts at 877-977-6518.

Click here if you need to purchase medical waste disposal containers including Sharps Containers.

(This article was first posted on the Hazardous Waste Experts blog.)

Showing 2 comments

  • rick hill

    I work at a solid waste landfill and we take in autoclaved medical waste i.e. syringes. Is this still considered hazardous materials? Our landfill is not suppose to accept hazardous materials.

    • Jessica Hope

      Thanks for the comment, Rick! Autoclaving is a sterilization method used for the treatment of most regulated, clinical medical waste (including Sharps). It works by using elevated pressure to heat and destroy pathogens inside the waste. Once the autoclaving process has been correctly performed, the waste (depending on the state you are in) then sometimes must be made to be “unrecognizable”. This involves changing the appearance of the waste in some way to signify that is has been properly treated. However, some states—such as California—do not require this added unrecognizability requirement. After these steps have been thoroughly completed, they are no longer considered hazardous by the EPA, and may be legally disposed of in a landfill.