medical waste washing ashore

Medical Waste Washing Ashore: Who’s In Charge of Regulation?

Earlier this month, Durban, South Africa, the country’s second largest city, was forced to shut down four of its most popular beaches due to piles of medical waste and general debris washing ashore.

South Africa is now in a frenzied rush to find who (and mort specifically what landfill) is responsible for this monstrosity.

But as we read up on Durban’s news, we were reminded of a story from almost 30 years ago and the resulting regulations. Thus we began to wonder, who really is in charge of regulating our country’s medical waste?

The following story comes from a 2o11 article on

The Syringe Tide, 1987-88

Medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches was a big problem in the late 1980s, closing beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey shore. For months, officials  scrambled to figure out where the waste was coming from, and eventually zeroed in on New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Below-par systems there were not successfully containing medical waste and other garbage, and thus NJ beaches (as well as vacationers and business owners) were paying the price. Although no one was injured or exposed to disease by the washed up waste, the public was especially alarmed given the HIV/AIDS crisis gripping the nation at that time. NYC was required to pay $1 million for past pollution damages and had to shoulder the cost of clean-up on Jersey Shore beaches, as well.

The resulting loss of tourism cost business owners throughout the affected region as much as 40 percent of their revenue, with total losses estimated at well over $1 billion. Some New Jersey business owners remain upset that New York wasn’t forced to pay them reparations for lost revenue as well.

The Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988

In the wake of the Syringe Tide scare, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, requiring the EPA to create a program to better track medical waste from cradle-to-grave, so that it didn’t end up fouling beaches or any other environments. Though the program was not renewed when it expired in 1991, it served as a model for how states and municipalities could better track potentially dangerous medical waste, while also helping medical facilities institute processes for knowing where their waste was going and that it was being disposed of responsibly.

Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have since coordinated on setting up and maintaining their own systems to stem the so-called “syringe tides.” The cornerstone is a multi-agency program designed to intercept debris within New Jersey Harbor before it can get to tourist-crowded Jersey Shore beaches. Thanks to the plan—which relies on surveillance by environmental groups as well as routine and special clean-up sweeps by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the implementation of a communications network to facilitate the reporting of incidents and quick responses—beach closures declined from more than 70 miles in 1988 to less than four miles in 1989, with closures remaining at similarly low levels ever since.

Of course, medical waste is hardly the only problem facing America’s beaches and coastal waters. According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), bacterial contamination from sewage treatment outflows, contaminated storm water and other sources caused more than 24,000 beach closures or advisories across the country in 2010 alone. NRDC reports on water quality at U.S. beaches every year in its series of “Testing the Waters” reports. Pressure from the group has helped spur the EPA to agree to overhaul Clean Water Act regulations pertaining to urban and suburban storm water runoff and update decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012. These improvements should help to keep beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to California, and points in between, clear of debris and safe for swimmers and sunbathers of every stripe.


properly dispose of sharps at home

How To Properly Dispose of Sharps at Home

To properly dispose of sharps at home isn’t as simple as one might think. You can’t just toss them into the trash or recycling bin. And no, not even if they’re inside a flimsy plastic bottle.

The danger in disposing of sharps as any other item of trash poses a potential harm to not only your local waste handlers, but also to children, pets, and others that might come in contact. In fact, some states actually ban the disposal of syringes and needles in this way.

If you are an at home patient or use sharps on a regular basis, here are some do’s, don’ts, tips, and tricks to properly dispose of sharps:

DON’T throw away sharps directly in the trash

Never dispose of needles, syringes, or other sharps straight into the household trash. This can cause a world of harmful possibilities.

Instead, dispose of sharps in an FDA approved sharps container. For information on what passes FDA guidelines, visit this article on FDA-Cleared Sharps Containers.

DON’T dispose of sharps containers in the recycling bin

Similarly to the point made above, don’t throw away sharps containers in the recycling bin. This cause several issues, as your recyclables must be sorted through and any sharps containers could potentially put waste handlers at risk, as well as making the entire collection of recycled materials unusable.

DO follow the guidelines of your state or local government

As mentioned before, some states (and local governments) make it illegal to dispose of sharps in the common household trash, even if in proper FDA-cleared sharps containers.

Instead, consult your local guidelines or follow some of these tips to get rid of sharps containers:

  • Drop boxes or supervised collection sites. Drop off your sharps disposal containers at collections sites, including doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies, health departments, medical waste facilities, and police or fire stations.
  • Mail-back programs. You may be able to mail a FDA-cleared disposal container to a collection site. Consult the manufacture’s instructions included with the sharps containers, as they might offer the mail-back option or have specific requirements.

DON’T dispose of sharps in a water bottle if a FDA container is not readily available

Sometimes you run out of containers. It’s understandable. But under no circumstances should you dispose of needles in weak packaging, such as water bottles or empty cereal boxes.

Follow these guidelines for DIY sharps containers:

  • choose a sturdy, non-see-through container, such as an empty bleach or laundry detergent bottle, or empty coffee can
  • CLEARLY label the container “DO NOT RECYCLE:” with “syringes,” “needles,” or “sharps” added
  • make sure the lid is able to be completely tightened
  • store in an upright position at all times
  • when container is full and ready to be disposed of, seal and reinforce the lid with Duct tape or other heavy-duty tapes

DO make sure your sharps container meets FDA standards

All sharps containers should be:

  • made of a heavy-duty plastic
  • able to close with a tight-fitting, puncture-proof lid, without sharps being able to come out
  • upright and stable during use
  • leak-resistant
  • properly labeled

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pharmaceutical disposal

Pharmaceuticals Disposal and What’s Next for the Industry

Pharmaceuticals disposal is often an overlooked topic of discussion.  Historically, the public has resorted to flushing unused or expired medications down the toilet or throwing them out with the trash, mostly due to a lack of take back programs or events in many communities. 

In recent years, studies have shown rising levels of medications in water sources, including over 24 metropolitan areas across America.  These medicines seep into water supplies and pass through treatment systems and into drinking water, as treatment plants are often not equipped to routinely remove medicines.

Catch-22 anyone?

Currently, the status of pharmaceuticals disposal causes quite a contradictory issue. On one hand, we have an ever-growing concern for the environment and safe-levels of drinking water, but on the other, the majority of communities actually lack the abilities for take back programs and thus the general public simply ends up holding on to unused drugs. According to Conrad MacKerron, senior VP of the environmental group As You Sow, “Only about 1 percent of U.S. pharmacies offer a drug take-back program.”  As a result, we run into the issue of the poisoning of children or pets, the misuse and overdose by teens and adults, and even the accidental consumption of wrong medications by seniors.

So, what’s next for the industry?

In September, the EPA proposed two new rules to combat the growing issues at hand. The first, aptly named the pharmaceutical rule, aims to prevent all facilities in healthcare from flushing pills down the drain, keeping an estimated more than 6,400 tons of pharmaceuticals waste out of our water systems. The goal here is to push pharmaceutical companies into creating their own take-back initiatives.

The other rule, or the generator rule, looks to improve the labeling of hazardous waste, as well as provide better preparation for emergency planning and preparedness. According to Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, “the proposals will improve the safety and health of our communities by providing clear, flexible and protective hazardous waste management standards.”

Great, but what should we, the public, do?

Drug take-back events

First things first, you should get in contact with your local government’s trash and recycling services and ask about community drug take-back programs, or contact the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)-authorized collectors. Some communities hold collection days and accept unwanted or expired drugs through retail pharmacies, hospital or clinical pharmacies, and law enforcement locations.  Some pharmacies even offer mail-back envelopes for disposing of medicines.

According the the EPA’s website, “Consumers can visit the DEA’s website for more information about drug disposal and to locate an authorized collector in their area. Consumers may also call the DEA Office of Diversion Control’s Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539 to find an authorized collector in their community.”

Household disposal

If drug take-back events aren’t possible, which they often are not, you should follow these steps for carefully disposing of medicines. Firstly, remove prescription drugs from their containers and mix with undesirable substances, such as cat litter or coffee grounds. Then, place the mixture in a sealable empty bag or container. Finally, mark out sensitive information on old prescription bottles and dispose of everything in the trash. But remember, this should be a final option after take-back events.

If you’re part of a pharmaceutical company, consider taking the EPA’s advice.  Small steps now can lead to major strides down the road.