How Hazardous Waste is Discarded

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the United States took interest in how medical waste was being discarded. When hazardous waste was found on the shorelines of Atlantic beaches, the Environmental Protection Agency got involved.

Have you ever dissected the lyrics from the Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” There are historical references throughout this 1989 release, and one line actually references the environmental disaster that prompted the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1989. 


Often referred to as the syringe tide, this event is forever chronicled with Joel’s lyric: hypodermics on the shores. Beaches along the east coast were closed in 1988 as officials investigated the origin of the needles and other medical waste that washed ashore.

What Is Medical Waste?

According to the World Health Organization, 85% of healthcare waste is non-hazardous. The need to alter disposal processes only applies to the remaining 15% of medical waste that is potentially infectious, toxic, or radioactive. Medical waste includes:


Infectious waste

Items that have come in contact with bodily fluids.


Pathological waste

Organic waste such as human tissue, organs, or fluids.


Sharps waste

Anything sharp, such as syringes, scalpels, and blades.


Chemical waste

Solvents, disinfectants, and batteries.


Pharmaceutical waste

Unused, expired, or contaminated drugs and vaccines.


Cytotoxic waste

Any substance that can alter the genetics within a cell, causing mutations.


Radioactive waste

Something contaminated by radionuclides


After the syringe tide, the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress implemented the Medical Waste Tracking Act, which lasted until 1991. At that point, state health agencies took over the regulation of medical waste disposal. 


Agencies that Monitor Medical Waste Disposal


  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

Nuclear Waste Disposal

The medical field isn’t the only source of radioactive waste; nuclear reactors and fuel processing plants also create radioactive materials. Instead of throwing this waste into landfills or dumping it into the ocean, it must be properly stored to avoid contamination and adverse health issues.


Per the World Nuclear Association, low-level radioactive waste (LLW) is packaged for long-term storage when it needs to be discarded. High-level radioactive waste (HLW) must first undergo a process of decay to reduce its radioactivity before storage. 

Where is Nuclear Waste Stored?

LLW can be stored near the surface of the Earth, whereas HLW is deposited at depths ranging from 820 to 16,404 feet.


Near-Surface Storage

These facilities feature protective coverings on the LLW material, and the containers are stored in sealed vaults or caverns just below the Earth’s surface.


Deep Geological Storage

For storage of HLW material, rock, salt, and clay barriers are used in conjunction with manmade impermeable layers to provide barriers in underground caverns. 


If at all possible, used fuel is reprocessed to extract the uranium and plutonium for reuse before the unusable waste is stored.

Where Medical Waste Comes From

Did you know that low-income countries generate less medical waste than high-income countries? This is due to the availability of medical care, and the instruments or procedures used based on funding. According to WHO, low-income countries only generate 0.2 kilograms of hazardous medical waste daily, whereas higher-income countries are responsible for producing 0,5 kilograms.


Medical waste, hazardous or not, is generated by:


  • Hospitals

  • Cosmetic surgery practices

  • Laboratories

  • Research centers

  • Mortuaries

  • Medical examiner/coroner facilities

  • Blood banks/blood drives

  • Assisted living facilities/nursing homes

Risks of Improperly Disposing of Medical Waste

People who work in the medical field and the sanitation field that services waste removal are most likely to be adversely affected by improper waste disposal. With an estimated 16 billion injections given every year, that’s a lot of sharps (needles or syringes) to throw away. 


If the sharps are not disinfected and discarded properly, sanitation workers run the risk of accidental punctures or cuts, potentially leading to infection. The WHO reports that someone who is pricked with a discarded needle that was previously used on an infected person has a 30% risk of contracting hepatitis B virus (HBV), a 1.8% risk of contracting hepatitis C virus (HCV), and a 0.3% risk of being infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).


In addition to the public being exposed to disease, the environment suffers when waste is disposed of improperly. Hazardous materials in landfills can result in chemicals leaching into the ground, contaminating the soil and water sources. 


Before the impact on the atmosphere was studied and better understood, hazardous materials were burned or incinerated. Unfortunately, this practice releases harmful pollutants into the air and can create toxic ash or fumes. Once they settle on the ground, there is the added risk of contaminating soil and water as well.


In conjunction with organizations that monitor medical waste disposal, there are sanitation companies, recycling companies, and even dumpster rental companies like Western Elite who are actively advocating for the proper separation and disposal of all types of waste. 

The aftermath of the Syringe Tide

The improper disposal of this trash in the 1980s led to an economic downturn for cities and towns that rely on warm-weather tourism for revenue. The eastern states hit the hardest due to beach closures included:


  • Connecticut

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • Rhode Island


Puerto Rico also fell under the umbrella of the MWTA, as it was impacted by the discovery of medical waste as well.


So, where did the syringe tide originate? Investigators traced the trash to Fresh Kills Landfill on New York’s Staten Island. The landfill, which closed in 2001, was fined for allowing trash to enter the Harbor, forming slicks of refuse that eventually found their way to the beaches. While the city of New York was responsible for paying that hefty, one million dollar fine, there were no reparations paid to those affected by the beach closures and loss of tourism revenue.


Although the risk for transmitting disease from the medical waste found in the late 80s was low, it was still a tragic instance of compromising the safety of wildlife and people. All medical waste should be discarded separately from household waste, regardless of the potential for infection. 

Alternatives to Sending Medical Waste Straight to Landfills

As mentioned, before 1997 medical waste was typically incinerated via Hospital Medical Infection Waste Incinerators (HMIWI). When air pollution became a concern, other alternatives were introduced:


  • Thermal/microwave treatment of waste

  • Autoclaving (steam sterilization)

  • Electro pyrolysis (thermal decomposition of waste)

  • Chemical cleaning (insecticide, fungicide, rodenticide)


These processes are used to kill any potentially infectious elements on the medical instruments or supplies before disposing of them. The next time you visit a medical facility, look around for the red bins with biohazard symbols; they’re meant for collecting infectious waste so it can be sterilized prior to disposal.


If you use healthcare supplies at home, you can use travel-size sharps disposal containers to transport used needles for proper disposal at a designated facility. To find out more about safe needle disposal, visit SafeNeedleDisposal.org for more information.

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