Biomedical waste is waste that is either putrescible or potentially infectious. Biomedical waste may also include waste associated with the generation of biomedical waste that visually appears to be of medical or laboratory origin (e.g., packaging, unused bandages, infusion kits, etc.), as well research laboratory waste containing biomolecules or organisms that are restricted from environmental release. As detailed below, discarded sharps are considered biomedical waste whether they are contaminated or not, due to the possibility of being contaminated with blood and their propensity to cause injury when not properly contained and disposed of. Biomedical waste is a type of biowaste.
Biomedical waste may be solid or liquid. Examples of infectious waste include discarded blood, sharps, unwanted microbiological cultures and stocks, identifiable body parts, other human or animal tissue, used bandages and dressings, discarded gloves, other medical supplies that may have been in contact with blood and body fluids, and laboratory waste that exhibits the characteristics described above. Waste sharps include potentially contaminated used (and unused discarded) needles, scalpels, lancets and other devices capable of penetrating skin.
Biomedical waste is generated from biological and medical sources and activities, such as the diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of diseases. Common generators (or producers) of biomedical waste include hospitals, health clinics, nursing homes, medical research laboratories, offices of physicians, dentists, and veterinarians, home health care, and funeral homes. In healthcare facilities (i.e., hospitals, clinics, doctors offices, veterinary hospitals and clinical laboratories), waste with these characteristics may alternatively be called medical or clinical waste.
Biomedical waste is distinct from normal trash or general waste, and differs from other types of hazardous waste, such as chemical, radioactive, universal or industrial waste. Medical facilities generate waste hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials. While such wastes are normally not infectious, they require proper disposal. Some wastes are considered multihazardous, such as tissue samples preserved in formalin.
Risk of Biomedical Waste to Human Health
A 1990 report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that the general public is not likely to be adversely affected by biomedical waste generated in the traditional healthcare setting. They found, however, that biomedical waste from those settings may pose an injury and exposure risks via occupational contact with medical waste for doctors, nurses, and janitorial, laundry and refuse workers. Further, there are opportunities for the general public to come into contact medical waste, such as needles used illicitly outside healthcare settings, or biomedical waste generated via home health care.
Biomedical waste must be properly managed and disposed of to protect the environment, general public and workers, especially healthcare and sanitation workers who are at risk of exposure to biomedical waste as an occupational hazard. Steps in the management of biomedical waste include generation, accumulation, handling, storage, treatment, transport and disposal.
On-site Versus Off-site
Disposal occurs off-site, at a location that is different from the site of generation. Treatment may occur on-site or off-site. On-site treatment usually involves the use of relatively expensive equipment, and is generally only used by very large hospitals and major universities who have the space, labor and budget to operate such equipment. Off-site treatment and disposal involves hiring of a biomedical waste disposal service (also called a truck service) whose employees are trained to collect and haul away biomedical waste in special containers (usually cardboard boxes, or reusable plastic bins) for treatment at a facility designed to handle biomedical waste.
Generation and Accumulation
Biomedical waste should be collected in containers that are leak-proof and sufficiently strong to prevent breakage during handling. Containers of biomedical waste are marked with a biohazard symbol (pictured). The container, marking and/or labels are often red.
Discarded sharps are usually collected in specialized boxes, often called needle boxes.
Specialized equipment is required to meet OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1450 and EPA 40 CFR 264.173. standards of safety. Minimal recommended equipment include a fume hood and primary and secondary waste containers to capture potential overflow. Even beneath the fume hood, containers containing chemical contaminants should remain closed when not in use. An open funnel placed in the mouth of a waste container has been shown to allow significant evaporation of chemicals into the surrounding atmosphere, which is then inhaled by laboratory personnel, and contributes a primary component to the threat of completing the fire triangle. To protect the health and safety of laboratory staff as well as neighboring civilians and the environment, proper waste management equipment, such as the Burkle funnel in Europe and the ECO Funnel in the U.S., should be utilized in any department which deals with chemical waste. bio
Handling refers to the act of manually moving biomedical waste between the point of generation, accumulation areas, storage locations and on-site treatment facilities. Workers who handle biomedical waste should observe standard precautions.
The goals of biomedical waste treatment are to reduce or eliminate the waste's hazards, and usually to make the waste unrecognizable. Treatment should render the waste safe for subsequent handling and disposal. There are several treatment methods that can accomplish these goals.
Biomedical waste is often incinerated. An efficient incinerator will destroy pathogens and sharps. Source materials are not recognizable in the resulting ash.
For liquids and small quantities, a 1-10% solution of bleach can be used to disinfect biomedical waste. Solutions of sodium hydroxide and other chemical disinfectants may also be used, depending on the waste's characteristics. Other treatment methods include heat, alkaline digesters and the use of microwaves.
For autoclaves and microwave systems, a shredder may be used as a final treatment step to render the waste unrecognizable.
Waste liquids (such as waste blood) may sometimes be safely disposed of to a sanitary sewer that leads to a sewage treatment plant. A small amount of dilute bleach is often subsequently used to disinfect the sink and plumbing. A sewage treatment plant uses dilution as well as physical, microbiological and chemical methods to break down biological waste. Its environment is usually hostile to pathogens.
Regulation and Management by Country
In the UK, clinical waste and the way it is to be handled is closely regulated. Applicable legislation  includes the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (Part II), Waste Management Licencing Regulations 1994, and the Hazardous Waste Regulations (England & Wales) 2005, as well as the Special Waste Regulations in Scotland.
In the United States, biomedical waste is usually regulated as medical waste. In 1988 the U.S. federal government passed The Medical Waste Tracking Act which set the standards for governmental regulation of medical waste. After the Act expired in 1991, States were given the responsibility to regulate and pass laws concerning the disposal of medical waste. All fifty states vary in their regulations from no regulations to very strict.
In addition to on-site treatment or pickup by a biomedical waste disposal firm for off-site treatment, a mail-back disposal option exists in the United States. In mail-back biomedical waste disposal, the waste is shipped through the U.S. postal service instead of transport by private hauler. While currently available in all 50 U.S. states, mail-back medical waste disposal is limited to very strict postal regulations (i.e., collection and shipping containers must be approved by the postal service for use) and only available by a handful of companies.
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- Reinhardt, Peter A., and Judith G. Gordon. 1991. Infectious and medical waste management. Chelsea, Mich: Lewis Publishers
- The public health implications of medical waste: a report to Congress. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1990; document no. PB91-100271
- U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Finding the Rx for Managing Medical Wastes, OTA-O-459 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1990)
- "National Research Council Recommendations Concerning Chemical Hygiene in Laboratories". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
- "Guidance on Closed Containers". Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
- NetRegs - Current legislation lists