Caring For A Relative In Your Home? What Should You Know About Medical Waste Laws?

6 August 2015
 Categories: Environmental, Blog

With Americans putting off their childbearing years later and later, many working families find themselves part of the "sandwich generation" -- caring for parents or other older relatives who have issues with mobility or cognition, while also raising children or teens at home. If you've recently found yourself taking on responsibility for helping your parent with certain health-related tasks, you may feel you simply can't handle another task on your plate. However, improperly disposing of sharps or other medical waste can put both you and the public at risk. Read on to learn more about the guidelines governing the disposal of home medical waste to ensure you're complying with all applicable rules and regulations while caring for your relative.

What laws govern the disposal of medical waste?

In the home health care setting, medical or biohazardous waste can run the gamut from used latex gloves to bloodied gauze or hypodermic needles. Even if your relative doesn't have any contagious illnesses, disposing of these items in the trash without taking recommended precautions could put members of the public at risk of illness or injury. For example, a needle used to inject insulin could tear through a garbage bag that does contain pathogens and stick a waste collection worker. Soiled gauze in a garbage can could attract carnivorous animals that carry disease, like raccoons or even coyotes.

The federal government regulates the disposal and recycling of medical waste through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and most states have their own complementary programs. These guidelines are intended to minimize the risk to the public from medical waste, as well as to encourage recycling or reuse of this waste when feasible. For example, some biomedical waste can be processed through alkaline hydrolysis, a new eco-friendly technology used as an alternative to cremation.

How can you ensure you're complying with all applicable laws and regulations?

Although federal law supersedes state law when there is a conflict between the two, if state laws are more restrictive than federal law, they win. When it comes to medical waste disposal, many states have merely adopted the EPA's recommendations, while others go even farther to place additional requirements on those disposing of medical waste. Therefore, your most comprehensive option when it comes to educating yourself on these disposal guidelines is to look at the laws for your specific state.

At a minimum, you'll be required to segregate biomedical waste in a separate, specially-marked container so that your local garbage collectors are aware of its contents. This waste will then be incinerated or recycled, depending upon the services offered in your area. If you need to dispose of used needles, you have a few options -- a cutting or burning device that destroys the sharp part of the needle, a hard-sided recycling box, or even a mail-in program that provides you with clean needles when you exchange dirty ones. Unused prescription drugs can sometimes be flushed, but otherwise should be returned to your pharmacy or another retailer that offers a drug exchange program.

If you're enlisting the help of home health care workers to care for your parent while you're at work, these workers should be well aware of the sanitation and disposal policies of your state. However, you're still responsible for the trash produced from your home, and if these workers cut any corners in the disposal of sharps or other medical waste, you could be the one facing financial penalties. During the caregiver interview process, you may wish to ask a few questions on the ins and outs of your state's medical waste removal laws to test these workers' knowledge.