Medical Waste

Facts About Medical Waste

Poor management of health care waste potentially exposes health care workers, waste handlers, patients and communities to infection, toxic effects and injuries, and risks polluting the environment. It is essential that all medical waste materials are segregated at the point of generation, appropriately treated and disposed of in a safe and environmentally way.

What is Medical Waste?

Thoughts of medical waste beckon images of red bio-hazard bags of potentially dangerous materials. Medical waste is solid waste created by diagnosing, treating or immunizing people or animals. It can also be the product of the research and testing of biological products. This term is defined specifically by the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. This definition includes, but is not limited to:

Bodily Fluid-soaked Bandages

Culture Dishes and other Glassware

Discarded Surgical Gloves and other personal Protective Equipment

Discarded Surgical Instruments

Discarded needles used to give shots or Draw Blood (e.g. Medical Sharps)

Cultures, Stocks, Swabs used to Inoculate Cultures

Removed Body Organs (e.g. Tonsils, Appendices, Limbs)

Discarded Lancets

Where Does Medical Waste Come From?

Two million tons of medical wastes are produced each year. Most of it comes from hospitals, but other sources include doctor’s offices, dental practices, research facilities, laboratories and veterinarian offices. Other sources can include the cruise industry, refuse transport barges as well as smaller countries with no medical waste depository systems.  Some companies simply will dispose of medical waste into landfills and into our oceans to avoid costs.  Companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals also produce high amounts of this waste.

The World Health Organization categorizes medical waste into:






Others (often sanitary waste produced at hospitals)

Where Does Medical Waste Go?

Managing under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), around 90 percent of medical waste is incinerated at roughly 2,400 medical waste incinerators (MWI) across the U.S. This incineration emanates a wide variety of pollutants into the air, including dioxins and furans, heavy metals (such as lead, mercury and cadmium) and carbon monoxide. However, alternatives facilities exist today that can address the environmental and health concerns associated with medical waste incineration.

Today a wide assortment of other processes, including steam sterilization, chemical disinfection and irradiation, are in use. Once medical waste has been decontaminated by any of these alternative methods, it usually ends up in landfills alongside regular municipal solid waste.  Unfortunately medical waste does not lways end up where it should and often ends up in our oceans and on our beaches.

Medical Waste and the Environment


Some medical waste in the ocean may be contaminated with blood or other body fluids of individuals diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, more commonly known as AIDS. There are medical companies and facilities out there, that wantonly dispose of medical waste and garbage into the ocean for easy disposal.


Toxins from medical waste dumped in the ocean affects the sea life and organisms that eat plants or fish who have ingested or absorbed such wastes. Such medical wastes as drug or culture dish pollution or toxins are then passed along food chains in the ocean and can affect everything from sea coral to whales. Humans who in turn eat tainted seafood or plants may also ingest harmful toxins that affect human growth, development and health.

Closed Beaches

Beaches are often closed, reducing tourism, recreation and revenue for ocean-side cities, when medical waste is found floating in the water or washing up on shore. One of the most common incidents is the discovery of syringes and needles, which may be contaminated or infected with hepatitis or other blood-borne pathogens and diseases.

Flushing Medications and the Environment

Just a few years ago, that was the default. But now pretty much everyone agrees it's a bad idea, because some of the more than $230 billion worth of prescription drugs used by Americans every year will make it through the sewage treatment process and into the waterways. (The Food and Drug Administration still recommends flushing OxyContin, Percocet, morphine, and a couple of dozen other drugs so kids and pets can't fish 'em out of the trash.)  Even though the FDA recommends flushing the above described meds, most, if not all experts say no.

A recent study shows that 80 percent of US streams contain small amounts of human medicines.  Sewage and water reclamation systems cannot remove these medicines from the processed water that is released into lakes, rivers and eventually into the oceans.  Fish and other aquatic animals have shown adverse effects from medicines in the water.  And, even very small amounts of medicine have been found in drinking water.

Another recent study have found that human drugs can disrupt the biology and behavior of fish and other aquatic critters at very low concentrations. "You can have measurable behavioral effects in fish and shellfish even at the parts per billion level," says Christian Daughton, a veteran EPA scientist who studies how pharmaceuticals affect waterways. Some drugs apparently accumulate in fish over time: One study published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Science found that male fish whose brains contained traces of Zoloft appeared less anxious. And while that might seem amusing, these fish are also less effective at seeking shelter from predators. One of the lead researchers, Bryan Brooks, director of the environmental health science program at Baylor University, told me that antibiotic waste, which is associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in fish, also is a big problem in the wild.  The fact that the average consumer in the US eats as much as 16 pounds of seafood per year, the long term effects on humans could be dangerous.

Throughout the US, there are several major pharmacies that have medication take back programs.  For information in finding a local disposal location, please visit...

Exposure to Viral and Bacterial Infection

Medical waste found in the ocean or washed up on shorelines may contain strains of bacteria or viruses that could affect human as well as sea life. According to Medical Waste Services, LLC, between 10 to 15 percent of medical wastes may be considered infectious.