Disposing of Medical Waste: Ebola & Others

The dangers posed by medical waste merit special attention, especially with the Ebola outbreak in recent months. Medical waste disposal is subject to a rigorous process to eliminate the spread of disease to the general population, but often the processing of medical waste comes at a cost. As a result, many cut corners and often risk exposing the general population due to the lack of care and oversight into properly disposing these contents. Current estimates peg the figure at over $2 billion and by 2017, this is projected to rise to more than $3 billion.

While the vast majority of the waste generated in health care facilities is non-hazardous, 15 percent is considered regulated medical waste. Medical waste is composed of infectious objects, chemical hazards, physical hazards, and radioactive products and must be handled with care to prevent environmental contamination.

Eastern Kentucky took a closer look at the costs and challenges associated with disposing Ebola-related and other medical waste, important considerations when planning for future outbreaks and epidemics that threaten our society. Digging deeper into biohazard waste statistics, challenges, and possible solutions, EKU produced an infographic titled "Disposing of Medical Waste: Ebola & Others," to provide an in-depth perspective on this growing and costly issue.

Ways Hospitals Dispose of Biohazard Waste
There are a number of methods that health care facilities employ to dispose of hazardous medical waste, including:

  • Autoclaving. Biohazards often need to be treated in isolation. This can be done in bulk through autoclaving, which is essentially sterilization using steam inside a pressurized chamber. Stationary chambers can be very large, enabling them to accommodate vast quantities at a time. Smaller, mobile units have also been deployed across the country. They are able to reduce the volume of waste and the risk of infections. However, they may release pathogens into the air.
  • Thermal or microwave systems. Waste is subjected to extreme heat to kill pathogens. A reduction in mass and volume is also achieved.
  • Chemical treatment or disinfection. Different chemicals are employed to destroy health threats. These include bleach, formaldehyde, sodium hypochlorite, ammonia, and more.
  • Deep landfill burial. Sharp objects such as glass shards, needles, and scalpels are usually buried underground where they cannot harm others.

Ebola Waste Disposal Challenges
One of the biggest challenges in outbreak containment is the disposal of waste. There are legal and logistical barriers that require a significant amount of research, education, and financing. Each Ebola patient generates 465 cubic feet of solid waste weighing over 1,000 pounds, roughly 30 to 40 times more than regular hospital patients. Adding up all of the linens, clothes, scrubs, towels, and other daily needs, as well as liquid waste due to vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding, etc., the cost of Ebola waste disposal totals about $1,000 per barrel – a significant investment, especially on a large scale.

Future Solutions for Ebola Waste Disposal
It is vital that health care organizations are trained and prepared for any future outbreaks and new solutions are proposed to help combat the costs and effectiveness of current medical waste disposal. Experts in the field propose the increased use of pathogen-killing agents such as sunlight, UV rays, gamma rays, autoclaves, and incinerators, along with portable medical waste treatment units, to help kill viruses and prevent the spread of these deadly diseases in an efficient and effective manner.

Posted on Apr 08, 2015