“Let the wastes of the sick not contaminate the lives of the healthy”
Medical Waste: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Medical waste can be defined as waste that contains potentially infectious materials. A broader definition may also include all materials that are of laboratory or medical origin, including packaging, infusion kits, etc.
Medical waste can cause serious health issues if it is not disposed of properly. The types, treatment, disposal, causes, effects as well as solutions for medical waste are examined in the following.
Types of Medical Waste
Among others, infectious waste includes pathological wastes, waste human blood, dialysis waste, laboratory waste and sharps.
Pathological waste can be defined as biohazardous waste which includes pathogens, infectious animal bedding and disposable items infected with human body fluids or blood.
Radioactive medical waste can be defined as waste generated during the different applications of radioisotopes in biological research or medicine. It may contain infectious biological components from anatomical, research or clinical sources.
Sharps waste can be defined as biomedical waste which includes devices to lacerate or puncture the skin, for example disposable scalpels, needles and blades.
Pharmaceutical waste can include contaminated or expired drugs and vaccines as well as antibiotics and pills.
Genotoxic waste can be defined as waste from drugs that are used in radiotherapy and units. These include urine, feces and vomit treated with chemicals or cytotoxic drugs.
Chemical medical waste includes heavy metals from medical appliances, disinfectants and solvents.
Non-hazardous medical waste can be defined as waste from medical origin that does not pose any particular danger to the environment.
Causes for Medical Waste
- Retail health
- Urgent care
- Home healthcare
- Assisted living facilities
- Funeral homes
Dental waste can pose threats to the environmental system as well as on humans if not disposed of and treated properly. Dental waste includes plastic, glass, latex, cotton or other materials that may be contaminated with body fluids or other infectious substances.
Moreover, dental practices also cause waste related to toxic chemicals and elements like amalgam, mercury or solvents. If these harmful substances are not disposed of and treated in an appropriate way, they can cause severe health issues since microorganisms may get in touch with humans and may infect these people.
There can also be medical waste produced by physician practices. This can include waste from experiments that may come in the form of by-products of experiments. It may also include used laboratory equipment.
Retail health may also cause large amounts of medical waste. This may include waste from drug packaging or used medical equipment.
Medical waste from veterinary offices may come in the form of non-hazardous as well as hazardous waste. The non-hazardous waste can be disposed of as regular office trash, while the hazardous fraction is subject to more careful disposal processes.
Veterinary waste mostly includes biological materials contaminated with fluids from animals. However, there can be also other forms of waste from veterinary offices, including radioactive waste from brachytherapy.
Waste from urgent care may include expired medications, trace chemotherapy waste or pathological waste products as well as general trash like paper cups and food scraps.
Since the average age in our society increases on a steady basis due to better medical treatment, the demand for home healthcare also increases. Moreover, people often prefer to stay in their homes instead of hospitals.
By doing so, home healthcare causes significant amounts of medical waste. This medical waste from home healthcare includes lancets, syringes and needles.
Assisted living facilities
Medical waste is also caused by several assisted living facilities, including nursing homes, psychiatric institutions, convalescent homes and disabled persons‘ facilities.
Although most of the waste produced in these facilities is non-hazardous, a small part may also contain biohazardous waste.
Waste from assisted living facilities includes chemotherapy waste, sharps, radioactive waste and other hazardous waste items.
Thus, waste from assisted living facilities has to be collected, segregated and stored in an appropriate way in order to prevent public health issues.
Hospitals are another great source of medical waste. Since they usually have all sorts of patients, they also produce many different types of medical waste.
This includes non-hazardous general waste as well as hazardous medical waste. Hospital waste includes chemical, infectious, radioactive and pharmaceutical items as well as sharps, syringes and other materials.
Funeral homes also produce many different kinds of medical waste. These may include scalpels, scissors, cannulas, trocars or incision needles.
Since a fraction of this medical waste is classified as hazardous waste, funeral homes have to make sure that this fraction is disposed of properly in order to avoid public health risks.
There is also a significant amount of medical waste that is produced in research facilities. These waste products include hazardous as well as non-hazardous medical waste.
The hazardous part may include medical waste that is contaminated with dangerous microorganisms which can cause severe health conditions.
Thus, the hazardous part of waste from medical research facilities has to be disposed of with great care in order to prevent health problems for our society.
Effects of Medical Waste
- Parasitic infections
- Blood poisoning
- Infections of the skin
- Candida albicans
- Diseases from vaccines
- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Sexual infections
- Environmental impact
Meningitis can be defined as an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. People who are diagnosed with Meningitis often suffer from symptoms like headaches, neck stiffness and fever. Meningitis can be either bacterial or viral and can be transmitted by contaminated body fluids.
Meningitis can thus be transmitted via contaminated syringes and needles. Therefore, medical waste contaminated with Meningitis bacteria may cause severe health conditions if people get in touch with these waste products.
Medical waste can also lead to parasitic infections. Materials that are contaminated with parasites may come from research institutions or laboratories.
If these contaminated waste products are not treated and disposed of properly, they can lead to parasitic infections for humans and animals and may cause serious health conditions.
Blood poisoning (or also called bacteremia) is the presence of bacteria in the blood which can cause severe infections or other health complications.
It can also cause sepsis which can be life-threatening in many cases. Blood poisoning can occur when contaminated needles or other infected instruments get in touch with the blood of patients.
Infections of the skin
Skin infections are usually caused by bacteria entering the skin through wounds or spreads. Skin infections may lead to local swellings or other adverse effects.
If contaminated medical waste is not treated properly, the waste can cause skin infections if humans get in touch with the contaminated material.
The infection with Candida is usually caused by Candida yeast. The infection with Candida can come in many different forms. Candida can cause serious health conditions, especially for elderly people or children that have weak immune systems.
Candida can be transmitted to humans if the contaminated medical waste is not disposed of in an appropriate way.
Incorrect treatment of medical waste may also result in the infection of patients with Hepatitis B and C. Hepatitis causes an inflammatory condition of the liver and thus is a quite serious disease.
Hepatitis can be transmitted through medical waste if reused syringes are not disinfected properly.
Diseases from vaccines
Vaccines are quite helpful to humans to prevent serious health conditions. However, if the used vaccine material is not disposed of properly, it may pose serious health issues to the environment since the waste may still contain living pathogens which may spread into the environmental system and contaminate animals as well as humans.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
MRSA can cause serious health issues since the bacteria is resistant to many antibiotics. People with a weak immune system may suffer from severe health conditions or may even die since MRSA can often not be treated efficiently. Infection with MRSA can happen if medical waste methods are not applied properly.
Herpes and other sexual infections can be transmitted if medical waste is not disposed of properly. Even small contacts with these bacteria can lead to an infection of patients, either through small breaks in the skin or through contaminated facilities like syringes that get in contact with the patients‘ blood.
HIV can also be caused by the use of contaminated syringes or other materials that get in touch with a patient’s blood. Although HIV can be currently treated much better than in former times, it still is a quite serious and life-threatening disease.
Especially in poor developing countries, Ebola still is a quite severe disease that causes many deaths each year. Since it is quite contagious, contaminated medical waste has to be handled with great care in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
Medical waste can not only pose serious health conditions to humans, it can also lead to an infection of animals if medical waste is not treated properly and they get in touch with this waste on landfills.
If animals are contaminated, they may transmit their diseases to other animals and the disease may be spread. Eventually, even humans may be affected since we eat meat from farm animals which may also have been contaminated.
Treatment of Medical Waste
- Biological treatment
- Chemical treatment
Vitrification can be an effective treatment method for medical waste. Vitrification means to mix in solid waste when glass is produced.
Thus, hazardous medical waste is now no longer harmful since it has been burned by high temperatures and is now also encapsulated in glass.
Therefore, the vitrified end-product can now be disposed of into landfills without causing health risks to the environment.
Autoclaves are used to sterilize medical instruments for reuse and also for the destruction of harmful medical waste. Autoclaves are chambers which apply high levels of heat and steam in order to kill harmful microorganisms in order to sterilize medical items. After the treatment in autoclaves, medical waste can usually be disposed of in landfills.
Through the incineration process, medical waste is burned in a controlled manner in order to get rid of harmful contaminated materials. Since incineration usually requires no pre-treatment, it is a commonly used technique to treat medical waste.
After the incineration process has been finished, the remaining product can be disposed of in landfills without posing any sort of danger to public health anymore.
Through irradiation, contaminated medical waste is exposed to gamma rays which can kill most harmful microorganisms and bacteria.
Basically, the irradiation that is used to kill bacteria is similar to the irradiation method that is used to kill malignant cells in the treatment of cancer. By using irradiation, hazardous medical waste can be treated in a proper way.
Microwave radiation is used as a heat source in order to treat medical hazardous waste. Before using this method, the medical waste is often shredded to make it smaller and thus to increase the efficiency of the radiation process.
Since microwave radiation is usually less expensive than irradiation, it is commonly used in order to get rid of medical waste. The end product can be disposed on landfills or other disposal units.
Chemical disinfection methods are widely used for the treatment of medical waste. In the process of chemical disinfection, chlorine compounds are often used as the main chemical.
Chemical disinfection is considered the most appropriate way to treat liquid medical waste according to the EPA. After the treatment of the liquid medical waste with chemicals, it can usually be discharged into the sewer system.
Medical waste can also be treated through biological processes. However, these processes are still subject to research in order to be able to determine their efficiency and also their potential dangers and thus are rarely used yet.
Chemical medical waste may be treated by the use of special chemical processes in order to neutralize the harmful compounds.
Disposal of medical waste
Medical waste is usually made safe through a sterilization process before it can be recycled or disposed of. Waste disposal can either be done on-site or off-site.
On-site treatment may be feasible by large hospitals or other sophisticated institutions. However, it is often quite costly and needs expensive equipment.
Moreover, this equipment usually is strictly regulated which makes it even harder to provide on-site treatment. Therefore, medical waste is often disposed of off-site since it is more cost-effective and also easier to manage for small to mid-sized medical facilities.
However, the transport of medical waste has to be executed with great care since through accidents or spills, medical waste may reach the environment where it could cause severe health issues for animals and also for humans if they get in touch with the harmful bacteria from medical waste.
Medical waste transports are therefore often carried out by specialized companies who have many years of experience and meet the safety criteria imposed by government and local authorities.
Medical waste regulations
There are big differences regarding the regulation of medical waste across countries. Even within the country, there may be significant differences from state to state or even from city to city.
For example, in the U.S., the regulations for all sorts of medical facilities and for the treatment of waste vary across states and regions significantly.
In the European Union, there is an EU waste legislation that sets standards for the disposal of medical waste for all member states. There are also many supplementary directives which further exemplify the appropriate handling of medical waste.
Solutions for the Medical Waste Problem
- Appropriate disposal of medical waste
- Avoid medical waste
- Government regulations
- Work together
Appropriate disposal of medical waste
One main measure against medical waste and its possible adverse consequences it the appropriate disposal of medical waste. In developed countries with good infrastructure, the appropriate disposal of medical waste is almost assured.
However, there are many poor countries that lack the knowledge and often also the financial circumstances to be able to assure proper disposal of medical waste. Especially in these countries, hospitals and other medical facilities have to be educated about the adverse
negative consequences of incorrect handling of medical waste on the environment.
Medical facilities should also be subsidized by local authorities or governments in order to be able to dispose of medical waste appropriately.
Avoid medical waste
Another obvious but yet effective way to mitigate the problem of medical waste is to simply avoid the production of it. However, this is easier said than done since in many cases, medical waste cannot be significantly reduced.
For example, it is not possible to reuse needles in a safe way since they can transmit diseases to other people. A more realistic concept would be to try to reduce the packaging material related to medical waste. By doing so, significant amounts of medical waste could be saved.
Government regulations concerning the proper disposal of medical waste are an important factor in order to fight the adverse consequences of medical hazardous waste.
Strict rules have to be set by governments on how the disposal processes have to be carried out in order to avoid any adverse effects on the environmental system.
These government regulations should also take into account the latest research findings in order to be able to improve disposal standards.
Especially in poor developing countries, it can make sense to financially support hospitals and other medical facilities. Through this financial support, the medical facilities may be able to increase their standards regarding medical waste disposal.
This would increase the probability that medical waste is disposed of in a safe manner and thus would reduce the probability of medical waste-related diseases.
Research is crucial to further improve processes. This is also true for the disposal of medical waste. If we are able to develop improved disposal processes or treatments for medical waste, we will be able to get rid of it in a cheaper and more effective way.
Thus, research on the topic of medical waste disposal is crucial to further increase our hygienic standards and to prevent the spread of diseases from an incorrect treatment of medical waste.
Education could also mitigate the adverse effects of medical waste. Educating nurses and doctors about the proper disposal of medical waste is obviously a crucial step in order to ensure safe processes.
However, we also should educate normal people on how to deal with their medical waste when they apply medicals at home. By doing so, people will take more care when they dispose of their potentially contaminated medical waste.
It is crucial to work together and to share the newest insights on medical waste disposal and treatment. Especially for scientists, it is crucial to share their findings with other researchers in order to spread the knowledge to all countries in the world.
By sharing these findings, many people will benefit from these new insights and the medical waste disposal processes all over the world are likely to be improved.
Medical waste comes in many different types and can cause serious health conditions both for humans but also for the whole environmental systems.
Especially in poor countries with low regulatory standards for the proper disposal of medical waste, medical waste is often treated in an incorrect manner.
This could lead to a spread of contagious diseases and could potentially kill many people. There are several measures to mitigate the medical waste problem.
Governments and researchers have to work together in a collective way and share their newest insights on improvements concerning medical waste disposal.
By doing so, we could improve the framework of medical waste disposal all over the world and thus accomplish a more effective way to fight the spread of diseases resulting from an incorrect treatment of medical waste.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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