What Happens to Medical Waste?


Medical wastes are a public health concern because they can be infectious. “A medical waste is defined as any solid waste which is generated in the diagnosis, treatment, or immunization of human beings or animals, in related research, biologicals production, or testing” (Title 29, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 259).

Regulation of Medical Wastes

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially included medical wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) as a demonstration program. Since the expiration of these programs in 1999, the majority of states have implemented programs similar to the EPA model.

Classification of Medical Waste

Medical wastes are a solid waste under RCRA regulations and may be a hazardous waste if they meet the characteristics of, or are listed as, a hazardous waste in the regulations.

Hazardous Medical Waste Disposal

If medical wastes are listed or characterized as a hazardous waste under RCRA regulations, they must be treated as an RCRA Subpart C hazardous waste. This requires that the waste be tracked from the generator to the transporter and to the treatment, storage, or disposal facility that will handle the waste.

Non-Hazardous Medical Waste

Medical waste that does not meet the definition of a hazardous waste must be disposed of as a solid waste under RCRA Subpart D. The waste must be treated or disposed of in a way that makes it non-infectious.

Incineration of Medical Wastes

According to EPA studies, over 90 percent of potentially infectious wastes are incinerated.

Other Medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Technologies

Other methods of treating medical wastes include: thermal treatment (including microwaving), steam sterilization (autoclaving), electropyrolysis, and chemical treatments. Chemical treatments to kill microorganisms must be registered with the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

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