If you've been tasked with the unpleasant job of sorting through a relative's or loved one's hoard-filled home, your first instinct may simply be to rent as many dumpsters as necessary and shovel the home's entire contents into them. However, doing this could subject you to stiff fines and penalties if it's later discovered that medical waste was included in this trash rather than being disposed of separately and in accordance with federal health and safety laws. Read on to learn more about what specific items are considered medical waste, as well as how you can safely and legally dispose of this waste.
What is considered medical waste?
Although you may associate the term "medical waste" with hospitals or nursing homes, this type of waste can be generated anywhere -- even at home. Certain items used in the treatment of injury or illness are rendered medical waste, including:
- Bloody bandages or gauze
- Used surgical gloves
- Used hypodermic needles
- Diabetic test strips or other testing devices containing blood
Other items, like prescription medications, are not technically classified as "medical waste," but are still governed by safety disposal regulations to prevent contamination of drinking water and groundwater.
How should you dispose of medical waste you uncover?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a number of guidelines, rules, and regulations governing safe and sterile medical waste removal. Adhering to these regulations may seem onerous, but can help you avoid a hefty fine -- and, more importantly, keep you and your neighbors safe from illness or injury.
- Prescription medication
It's estimated that about one in every seven Americans (about 40 million people in total) are impacted by pharmaceutical contamination of their drinking water supply. As most wastewater treatment facilities lack the ability to filter out medications from the drinking water supply, flushing pills can put both you and your neighbors in harm's way. Even putting something as relatively harmless as birth control pills into the water supply can affect the reproductive cycles of nearby farm animals or cause young girls to enter puberty early.
To properly dispose of any prescription medications you may encounter, you should first try to identify and sort them. Certain types of drugs (such as blood thinners) are considered extremely hazardous and should be disposed of separately from even other prescription drugs, while other types of non-hazardous drugs (like ibuprofen) may be placed in regular household trash.
Most cities have a drug recycling program that will allow you to drop off these drugs to be disposed of properly. If your city doesn't have such a program, you may be able to dispose of the drugs yourself by mixing them in with coffee grounds or cat litter and placing this mixture into a sealed container, like a plastic baggie.
- Used needles
As with prescription medication, many cities have drop-off programs for the collection and disposal of used needles. If you'd rather dispose of these needles yourself, you'll need to take steps to remove the sharp tip of the needle (such as by cutting or burning it) so that it is no longer capable of puncturing the skin. The rest of the needle can then be placed in a sealed bag that is labeled with biohazard stickers or otherwise marked to indicate that it contains potentially hazardous medical waste.
- Bloodied bandages or other materials
Although these materials don't run the risk of causing injury (like sharp needles or prescription medication), they could cause infection or illness if placed into regular household trash. To properly dispose of porous materials that have come into contact with blood or other bodily fluids, you'll want to seal these materials in a specially-labeled biohazard bag (as with disposed sharps) and set it out for trash pickup. By labeling and separately packaging this waste, you can ensure that all who come into contact with it are aware that they should take extra precautions.