Proper Disposal of Medical Waste

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

While not a glamorous topic, waste disposal is a fact of life. We toss left-over food, worn out clothes, old newspapers, and countless other items in the trash or recycling bin. But some waste, like the medical variety, requires more careful disposal.

Medical by-products (solid, liquid) or implements can be harmful to people and the environment. Common examples of medical waste are needles and syringes, used bandages and gloves, human or animal tissue, blood and feces, and medications.

Sharps Disposal

In a hospital setting, sharps include things that are, well, sharp! Needles, lancets, and scalpels contaminated with human or animal blood or tissue must be safely discarded. For a pet owner, in a home setting, sharps most often refer to needles and syringes used for injecting medication.

"Needles, lancets, and scalpels contaminated with human or animal blood or tissue must be safely discarded."

Pet owners with diabetic cats or dogs give daily injections. They accumulate used needles and syringes quickly and should not just toss them in the trash, which can put other people at risk. According to the CDC, over 600,000 people are injured annually by improperly discarded needles. Furthermore, used needles may be misused by people with chemical dependencies. Plus, the slow degradation of needles and syringes thrown in the trash and buried in landfills impacts the environment.

The EPA recommends using one of the many medical waste companies that cater to pet owners. Many of these companies make disposal easy by sending impenetrable containers directly to the home. When filled, the pet owner places the container in a postage-paid package for return to the disposal agency. The containers prevent injury and contamination and are labeled appropriately for transport via approved channels. For peace of mind, many companies provide documentation of safe destruction or disposal to clients.

Medical waste disposal companies can be found online or you can ask your veterinarian for a reference. Some veterinary hospitals and pharmacies will also handle medical waste disposal for a modest fee.

Medication Disposal

Expired or unused medications should be disposed of safely. While these medicines may not be as harmful to the environment as other medical wastes, they can still be harmful to humans or pets.

"Expired or unused medications should be disposed of safely."

There are several drug take-back programs in communities across the US. Some pharmacies and veterinary clinics will also take unused medication and dispose of it properly. If such programs are not available, there are two ways to dispose of medication, according to the FDA.

Some (not all) medications can be flushed down the toilet or sink. The FDA has a list of medicines that can be flushed when they cannot be returned. If the medication is a pill or capsule, place it in a zip-lock bag. Crush the pill or open and empty the capsule and add water to dissolve it. You can either flush the liquid down the toilet or pour it down the sink followed by thorough rinsing. Liquid medications can be disposed of in the same manner. Read the medication label to verify that it is safe for household plumbing and sewer systems.

Another method to dispose of solid medications is to crush them in a zip-lock bag, add an undesirable substance like coffee grounds or kitty litter, and place the mixture in the regular garbage. This makes the medication less likely to be misused by drug seekers. Before throwing away prescription bottles, remove the labels and destroy all identifying information to protect your privacy. Remember that plastic medicine containers can be recycled.

"Before throwing away prescription bottles, remove the labels and destroy all identifying information to protect your privacy."

Bodily Waste Disposal

It is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it! Responsible pet owners have to clean up after their dogs and cats. That means scooping poop. Why is it important to perform this unpleasant task? Besides being unsightly and smelly, animal feces can contaminate the environment and watershed with bacteria, viruses, and parasites. To protect people and other animals, feces must be disposed of properly.

"Responsible pet owners have to clean up after their dogs and cats. That means scooping poop."

The most common method of bodily waste disposal utilizes a plastic bag. In the interest of recycling, many pet owners save plastic grocery bags to use when walking their dogs. After tying the bag, they throw it in the trash. This may sound environmentally sound, since it re-uses a bag, but unfortunately, many plastic bags are not easily biodegraded. You can purchase biodegradable waste bags in convenient dispensers that can be attached to a leash. Some bags are even scented, making your task a little less offensive.

You can also empty the bags into the toilet and flush the feces down the drain. There are even flushable doggy bags that eliminate a most unpleasant step. These bags break down in water, but usually hold up nicely enough for you to transport the waste home. Flushing may not be advised if you have a private septic system, as opposed to public sewer hook ups.

Speaking of sewer systems, some pet owners use pet septic systems to dispose of feces. Many of these systems do not function well, making them unsafe for the environment. Performance may be affected by temperature, water levels, and even the content of the dog food Fido consumes. If you choose to use a pet septic system, have the discharge evaluated by an environmental company to verify the product’s safety.

Pet owners who have large yards often leave Mother Nature in charge of bodily waste disposal. Even in large areas, this may not be environmentally sound. Contamination of water sources is still a possibility.

Another method of dealing with pet waste is to compost feces. Some dog parks have compost bins for pet owner use and home compost units are available. This method does not take much more effort than tossing a bag in the trash, but the composting system has to function correctly to be environmentally sound. Some home compost units do not reach temperatures high enough to kill contaminating bacteria. To destroy E. coli and Salmonella, temperatures need to reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Since pet waste can contain bacteria and parasites harmful to humans, it should never be used as fertilizer for food crops.

"As for cats, disposing of litter in the garbage can is the best option."

As for cats, disposing of litter in the garbage can is the best option. Kitty litter is biodegradable, but does not compost well and blocks up sewer systems.

Disposal of medical wastes is not glamorous or fun. It is just one of the many responsibilities of owning a pet. And it is worth the effort to keep people, pets, and their environment safe.

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