$450,000 Dumping Disaster Stirs Medical Waste Controversy

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The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is making headlines due to a recent snafu involving the improper disposal of medical waste. The result of their error? A $451,000 fine at the hands of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The hefty fine caps off a two year investigation of UPMC, although the hospital claims its violations were accidental. The hammer came down after it was discovered that twelve UPMC hospitals were dumping potentially infectious waste in a local landfill.

They Dumped What?

Bloody dressings, needles and body fluids were among the waste, leading to understandable concerns and outrage from the locals who discovered it. Although regulations for medical waste disposal vary from state to state, “red bag” materials such as potentially infectious waste absolutely cannot be disposed of alongside municipal trash.

Who’s to Blame?

Although claiming that the violations were purely accidental, UPMC did not contest the fines. The DEP reported that the hospitals were additionally in violation of regulations due to “improper labeling, storage and handling of regulated medical waste.” The aforementioned waste was moved by hired contractors after learning of the violations.

With multiple hospitals in violation, there’s no particular individual at UPMC in which to point the finger to blame. Additionally, such violations are incredibly uncommon, making the situation even more bizarre.

DEP spokesman John Poister stated that the only other citation against a hospital in the region occurred fifteen years ago and was much smaller in scope. He also noted that the investigation led him to believe that the problem was indeed unintentional, likely caused by improper employee training.

An Isolated Incident?

As noted, laws regarding the disposal of medical waste vary by state. However, dumping controversies are relatively rare in the United States versus less civilized countries where laws concerning medical waste are lax or nonexistence.

This begs the question: is illegal dumping still occurring under our noses beyond the borders of Pennsylvania?

The Environmental Protection Agency has clear guidelines regarding what exactly is classified as medical waste and how it should be treated (tradition disposal or incineration, for example). Currently, medical waste is regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which can dish out fines up to $27,500 per day in violations, prior to adjustments.

In other words, most practices can’t afford to fool around with such regulations.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way the widespread panic from syringes washing up on the beach as they did in New York and New Jersey in 1988. That being said, the World Health Organization notes that diseases such as hepatitis and HIV are commonly spread through improper waste disposal among poverty-stricken populations. In short, the EPA’s stringent regulations to keep hospitals in line and citizens safe.

Obviously, all hospitals should practice proper medical waste disposal; unfortunately, cases such as that of UPMC still periodically pop up in the United States. Hefty fines and regulations seem to be helping keep hospitals in check; however, increased public awareness of the dangers of improper disposal and dumping will continue the downward trend of medical waste mismanagement.

Image Credits: Wikimedia