New US regulations could prevent 6,400 tonnes of hazardous waste entering waterways

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed two new rules banning healthcare facilities from flushing their hazardous waste pharmaceuticals down the drain, to help protect drinking and surface water.

EPA’s proposed rule change, which is projected to prevent the flushing of more than 6,400 tonnes of hazard waste pharmaceuticals annually, will also reduce the burden on healthcare workers and pharmacists by creating a specific set of regulations for these facilities.

“These rules provide businesses with certainty and the flexibility they need to successfully operate in today’s marketplace,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of 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.”

Pharmaceuticals like warfarin, used for the prevention of thrombosis, are usually disposed by emptying the syringe down the drain. This hazardous waste then has easy access to both water surfaces and drinking water. The new proposals, set to be announced in the coming weeks, will aim to create a clear understanding of how wastes should be treated.

Mathy Stanislaus added: “The primary focus for nurses, doctors and pharmacists is providing healthcare – they are not experts in hazardous waste identification and management. This rule seeks to reduce the burden and increase compliance by proposing a more flexible, common sense approach for healthcare providers and the elimination of unnecessary management practices.”

The healthcare sector is constantly evolving, with more treatments. Enhanced technology in the 1990s allowed pharmacology to enter mass design and production on new drug treatments. However the way that healthcare facilities dispose of the excess waste has not changed because hazardous waste generator regulations were written in the 1980s with very little amendments.  

Call for action

The new proposals come after feedback from the sector asking for clearer guidelines on wastes disposal.

Last year the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) advised organisations to strengthen staff training on waste management in order to reduce their impact on the environment. It is hoped that the new regulations will speed up that process.

In 2012 it was announced that activities by healthcare facilities represented 3% to 8% of the climate change footprint in developed countries. The new regulations could reduce this percentage as less waste enters the waterways.

Sewage solutions

Wastewater treatment plants are trying to tap into energy generating potential and become a resource to communities. The EPA launched Net Zero Heroes to help reach this goal.

A build-up of sludge in our waterways has also been an issue for wastewater treament. Due to high amounts of metal waste the sludge cannot be buried. However researchers from Universiti Teknologi MARA, have been working on a way to turn sludge into cement as part of a closed-loop cycle for sewage waste. 

Matt Mace

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