Medical waste still popping up in Monroeville landfill
By Melissa Daniels
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 8:21 p.m.
Blood bags, surgical sponges and what might be human tissue keep turning up at a Monroeville landfill despite warnings the Department of Environmental Protection issued to Pittsburgh's two major hospital systems.
DEP officials received a complaint on Dec. 17 from a Monroeville resident about unsterilized medical waste in red bags at the Waste Management landfill, said John Poister, an agency spokesman. Investigators traced them to Allegheny General Hospital and UPMC hospitals, including UPMC Shadyside.
State law prohibits hospitals from disposing of medical waste in a landfill unless it is properly processed and sterilized. DEP put the hospitals on notice after the complaint, but more waste has appeared in hauls from their hospitals, some of it as recently as Monday.
“That's the thing that's really vexing to us right now,” Poister said. “Why is this happening even after we've alerted them to the problem?”
DEP officials plan to meet with hospital officials next week to discuss the matter. Poister said a “significant fine” is likely, based on the scope of the violation.
Both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network officials said they've properly disposed of the waste since being notified of the violations and are retraining staff to follow disposal procedures.
Poister said the state is losing patience with the hospitals.
“We were assured from UPMC on more than one occasion they had addressed the problem, and they were confident no more waste would get into the normal stream,” Poister said. “And yet we continue to see this material popping up.”
Hospitals use red bags used to distinguish unprocessed waste from other trash. Those found at the landfill included what appears to be surgical waste, emptied blood bags and tubing from transfusions, hypodermic needles and bandages. Most concerning, Poister said, was what appeared to be human tissue.
“There's a danger of spreading disease,” Poister said. “You don't want to expose anything in the normal waste stream to anything infectious.”
Poister said eight to 10 truck loads of trash to the Monroeville facility in the past two weeks have contained medical waste. Cases of medical waste turning up in landfills are extremely rare, Poister said. In 1999, Allegheny General Hospital was fined $65,000 for one to two occurrences.
Waste Management spokeswoman Erica Deyarmin said the landfills spot check everything that comes in as a part of its processing plans. In this case, they're working with the DEP, local health officials and the hospitals to resolve the medical waste issue, she said.
“The DEP has been very helpful, and we've been taking all their recommendations,” she said.
Typically, hospitals process medical waste either on site before it gets hauled away, or through a separate contractor who disposes of it, Poister said.
Gloria Kreps, spokeswoman at UPMC, said medical waste is processed at specialized facilities.
“UPMC is re-educating staff to ensure that all medical waste is strictly monitored and properly disposed,” she said. “UPMC has maintained a presence at the Monroeville landfill to screen all incoming loads and immediately address any identified problems.”
Dan Laurent, spokesman for Allegheny Health Network, said Allegheny General and all hospitals in the network have “strict policies and procedures” for medical waste disposal.
“We have zero tolerance for any breach of those procedures and are taking steps to re-educate staff at our facilities about proper waste disposal to ensure that there are no such concerns moving forward,” he said.
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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