The Obscurity of Medical Waste in America

When it comes to state and federal regulations, things are a bit hazy in labeling a substance as medical waste.  In fact, different terms such as “hospital waste,” “biomedical waste,” and “infectious waste” consistently appear in state and federal laws and guidelines, yet there is currently no set test to determine when a solid waste is considered to be medical or infectious.

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Two of the most widely used definitions come from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), and contribute to the already unclear matter.

On one hand, the EPA defines infectious waste as waste “that contains pathogens with sufficient virulence and quantity so that exposure to the waste by a susceptible host could result in an infectious disease.”  In simpler terms, they define infectious waste as waste that has the ability to produce infectious disease.  This disease producing capability is determined by four factors: presence of pathogen of sufficient virulence, dose, portal of entry, and resistance of the host.  In accordance with this, the EPA lists six infectious waste categories: Isolation wastes, cultures and stocks of infectious agents and associated biologicals, human blood and blood products, pathological wastes, contaminated sharps, and contaminated animal carcasses, body parts, and bedding.  To follow these guidelines and actually label a certain substance as infectious, the EPA recommends that “a responsible authorized person or committee at the individual facility evaluate these wastes to determine which should be managed as infectious waste.”

On the other hand, the CDC’s recommendations for how to classify waste as infectious were originally that blood and body fluids from all patients should be considered potentially infected with HIV and/or other blood-borne pathogens and that healthcare workers adhere rigorously to infection control precautions.  However, these recommendations caused panic and confusion due to their broad coverings, and were eventually changed to precautions to blood, body fluids containing visible blood, and other specified fluids.

Though their recommendations have different focuses and standards, the two organizations agree that pathological waste, blood and blood products, contaminated sharps and microbiological wastes are infectious.  They do not agree however, over designation of communicable disease/isolation wastes.  The EPA considers communicable disease wastes infectious and CDC recommends that such wastes be treated according individual hospital policy.

As you can see, the definitional differences of the EPA and CDC make accurate, consistent information on the amount of medical waste generated in the United States hard to come by.  Regardless, Healthcare Waste Management takes pride in the highly regulated work we do properly handling, and disposing of the medical waste of our customers.