Handling Chemicals and Universal Waste in Healthcare Facilities

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By Maricha Ellis

While healthcare practitioners are liable for protecting and saving lives, their facilities are responsible for offering safe, healing environments for patients. When it comes to hazardous waste generated in a practice or hospital, it is important that the organization is also held accountable for proper management.

According to the World Health Organization, 85 percent of waste generated by healthcare activities is general, non-hazardous waste while the remaining 15 percent is considered hazardous material that may be infectious, toxic or radioactive.

In order to protect patients and maintain a safe atmosphere, facilities must be aware of the various hazardous wastes found in healthcare settings, particularly in regard to chemicals and universal waste, as well as what they look like and how to properly store and dispose of these materials.



Waste in the healthcare setting

Healthcare facilities generate a variety of hazardous waste and by-products such as needles, contaminated drugs and radioactive diagnostic material. However, they also generate chemical and universal waste, which can be just as damaging.

Federal universal waste regulations identify four types of universal waste:

  • Batteries
  • Pesticides
  • Mercury-containing equipment
  • Lamps

While many of these materials may be small in size, they can actually generate high volumes of waste and can be found in large quantities in healthcare facilities. Examples include aerosol cans, antifreeze, paints and e-waste. When sites fail to comply with hazardous waste and universal waste rules, RCRA fines can exceed $70,000 per day, per violation. 

Chemical waste includes solvents and reagents used for laboratory preparations, disinfectants, sterilant and heavy metals contained in medical devices. Laboratories and other healthcare facilities accumulate chemicals in both work and storage areas. These chemicals not only inhabit valuable space, but they are also potentially dangerous.

Identifying waste

To preserve the safety of healthcare facilities, it is important to begin with the identification of chemicals and universal waste, as proper waste identification is central to any waste management program. For any material to be considered hazardous waste, it must first be considered waste. To assist, the EPA developed a set of regulations that help create a clear distinction. RCRA uses the term “solid waste” in place of “waste.” This refers to any type of waste, including solid, semisolid or liquid.

Once waste is identified, the next step is to determine if it is hazardous. Universal waste is considered hazardous waste, despite containing some materials that are very common. Alternatively, chemical waste displays either a “hazardous characteristic” or is listed by name as hazardous waste.

Simply put, hazardous waste is a waste with properties that make it dangerous or capable of having a harmful effect on human health or the environment, according to the EPA.

Identifying waste is critical to the protection of a facility, as well as the storage and disposal of these materials. However, because of the complicated nature of waste identification, it can be beneficial for an organization to hire a hazardous waste disposal service company to assist with the proper identification, storage and disposal of hazardous waste. With so many regulations healthcare facilities must adhere to, it is advantageous to enlist the help of experts to ensure regulatory compliance.

Waste storage and disposal

Strict federal, state and local laws regulate the storage, repackaging, shipping and disposal of chemicals and universal waste. Waste must be managed in a way that protects people, minimizes regulatory risk and maximizes usable space. 

Universal waste must be stored “in a manner that will prevent releases,” meaning boxes containing this type of waste must be shut and secured properly to prevent them from moving, breaking or spilling. Chemical waste must be stored in containers that are free of leaks or any outside residue.

Furthermore, hazardous waste storage areas should be inspected frequently, under the control of qualified personnel and out of the way of normal activities.

Should chemical or universal waste need disposing of, there are federal regulations that must be followed, which is where a hazardous waste disposal service company can be useful. Universal Waste and some hazardous wastes can be reclaimed or recycled, while others should be treated and disposed of in landfills or incinerators.

Treatment Storage and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs) provide temporary storage and final treatment or disposal for hazardous wastes. However, TSDFs are strictly regulated, since they manage large volumes of waste and may present a higher degree of risk.

Healthcare facilities are in a unique position to provide patients with quality care while ensuring a safe, healthy environment for all. However, with so much hazardous waste generated within these facilities, they must also follow strict regulations to maintain compliance.

Maricha Ellis is vice president of marketing and sales operations for Stericycle Environmental Solutions, a leader in assisting customers with hazardous waste transportation and disposal, industrial cleanup, household hazardous waste, site restoration, emergency response services and more. For more information, visit https://www.stericycleenvironmental.com.

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