The History of Medical Waste
Medical waste was once discarded into the regular waste stream, before being regulated in the United States. It’s cringe-worthy to even think about, however that used to be the case. Regulated Medical Waste is a fairly recent term and the regulations surrounding medical waste are somewhat new as well. In fact, concern for the potential health hazards of medical waste didn’t take heed until the 1980s after medical wastes were washing up on several east coast beaches.
At the beginning of the 19th century, sanitation and waste disposal were almost inconceivable. Large cities, like New York City had waste lining the cobblestone streets. Anything from human urine to dead animals or horse manure lay in the street with no plans for removal. Obviously, this filthy environment created perfect circumstances for contagious diseases and bacteria to spread. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Edwin Chatwick researched the precarious conditions inside British hospitals and prisons leading to the creation of the Public Health Act in 1848. This was the first step on the road to improved public health, but a series of many more acts, regulations, and laws were needed to truly bring public health to an acceptable standard, which some parts of the world are still failing on.
Medical waste is one of the latest waste streams to be regulated. The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 was enacted to reduce waste and protect human and environmental health. It is described by the EPA as “the first federal effort to improve waste disposal technology.” The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976. This is the principal federal law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste.
Even though hospitals, health care facilities, laboratories, and dentists have been around for more than a century, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Congress was prompted by the waste washing up on beaches, to finally act. Congress passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, originally designed as a two-year federal program in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was required to promulgate regulations on management of medical waste. The regulations for this program began on June 24, 1989 in only four states and Puerto Rico. The four states subjected to the regulations of the program were New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
The Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 outlined:
- Guidelines for the definition of medical waste
- Created a waste tracking system
- Established standards for the separation, packaging, storage and labeling of waste
- Imposed penalties for failure to track medical waste
Penalties, depending on the specific violation, ranged from fines of $25,000 per day to millions of dollars and prison time.
The EPA monitored medical waste for the two years indicated in the MWTA., expiring on June 21, 1991. At the end of the two years, the EPA analyzed the information gathered during this period, concluding that the disease-causing potential of medical waste is greatest at the point of generation and naturally tapers off after that point. This highlighted the great risk for healthcare workers to be exposed to disease caused by medical waste. Once the MWTA expired in 1991, states largely took on the role of regulating medical waste under the guidance developed from the two year program led by the EPA.
Since the expiration of the MWTA in 1991, the EPA has not directly regulated medical waste. The regulation of medical waste is now largely left up to state environmental and health agencies. It is important to note that each state has its own regulations, some states being more stringent than others. Other federal agencies have also issued safety regulations governing the handling of medical waste, including the CDC, FDA, DOT, and OSHA.
A clean environment is essential to human health, which is why modern sanitation efforts, including the regulating of medical waste, have been instrumental in increasing the American life expectancy. This is why companies like Solutions, Inc. strive to provide an endless array of medical waste disposal solutions to protect our community, preserve our environment, and promote human health.