Hopefully, if you’re reading my blog, you’re in the healthcare industry and you have an OSHA-compliant medical waste disposal program in place. You know what sort of medical waste goes into which container or bag, and you already hired a medical waste management company to cart everything away. You receive a paper that says that you have responsibly disposed of the medical waste you generated. You have taken care of the safety of your staff and your patients.
Here’s what happens after that.
Where does the medical waste disposal matter go?
The short answer: To be sterilized.
Once the medical waste disposal matter is sufficiently sterile, it can be chucked in a landfill or even discharged into the sewer system. Basically, it follows the path of other regular, standard, general garbage.
The following are the primary methods used for treatment and sterilization of medical waste:
This entails incinerating (i.e. burning) the medical waste in a medical waste incinerator. This is the simplest way to take care of medical waste disposal matter, because it doesn’t need to be sorted and the burning reduces the volume of the waste and sterilizes it. After incineration, the waste/ash can be dumped in a landfill.
There is a big downside. The EPA is still examining if incineration should continue to be used in the medical waste disposal process. The irony is that during the process of destroying substances that may harm the environment and people in it, the toxins and pollution generated and released by the incinerators are harmful to the environment.
These are used 90% of the time for treating medical waste disposal matter. They are closed chambers that apply pressure, steam, and heat to kill microorganisms and sterilize the medical waste.
It’s a two-step process. The medical waste disposal matter is still recognizable after being sterilized, so it needs to be shredded or otherwise manipulated before it can be treated like other trash.
Some facilities use small countertop autoclaves to sterilize their equipment so that it can be reused. Large autoclaves are used to sterilize the medical waste disposal matter that will need further mechanical destruction.
This is a process that involves chemical agents for disinfection. (chlorine, for example.) Mostly, this process would be used for liquid wastes, though it can also be used to treat solid waste. Sometimes the medical waste disposal matter is grinded before being exposed to the liquid chemical for disinfection. The grinding ensures that all parts of the waste are sufficiently exposed to the chemical and makes it easier to dispose of the residue. If the material that results is a liquid, it is chucked in the sewer system, while solid residues are disposed of in landfills.
Microwave destruction is an application of microwave technology to disinfect waste. The process begins with shredding. This reduces the volume of the waste. The shredded waste is then mixed with water and put in a microwave unit. The power of the microwave disinfection is that it heats the waste internally. The steam that results from the high temperature neutralize biohazards.
Microwave disinfection is one of the cheapest ways to neutralize biohazards. It reportedly uses lower energy than an incinerator. It is done in one unit. Computerized controls are used to make sure the minimum parameters for disinfection and proper equipment function are kept. The process can be done by unskilled workers. The volume is significantly reduced and the waste can be dumped in a landfill.
Not recommended for getting rid of pathological waste
This method is not often used. It entails getting the medical waste matter exposed to a source of cobalt. (Cobalt gives off gamma radiations that get rid of all the microbes in the waste matter.) The cost of cobalt, and the cost of operation, is high enough to discourage commercial ventures from using this method to treat their medical waste disposal matter.
There have also been some questions about the process and whether it properly and adequately disinfects the medical waste matter.
This involves heating the medical waste. The waste is heated to temperatures that kill off infectious agents. It’s usually used to sterilize large volumes of liquid medical/clinical wastes. The chamber of the machine is preheated to a very intense, specific temperature and held for a specific amount of time, then released.
That, in a nutshell, is where the medical waste disposal process takes the medical waste that’s carted off from your facility.
I will be addressing specific methods and some of the concerns associated with them more thoroughly in my next blog.