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TODAY’S FOCUS: Hospitals’ Bioinfectious Waste Is Growing Problem

April 10, 1986

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) _ After foul odors and flies hovering around a warehouse prompted neighbors’ complaints, the Westchester County health department investigated and found five tons of hospital waste, including blood, body tissue, syringes and used bandages.

Last summer’s cleanup cost $18,000 and led to the arrest of Dennis Kelly, 28, of Philadelphia. He was charged with fraud and grand larceny for allegedly accepting $7,000 from three New York City hospitals to dispose of their waste properly - that is, to incinerate it.

When ordered to remove the waste from the community of Cortlandt, Kelly allegedly trucked it to another warehouse in Camden, N.J., where authorities believed he was preparing to transfer the refuse into ordinary bags for disposal at a landfill.

Under federal guidelines, bioinfectious waste must be separated from ordinary refuse. It is usually placed in distinctive red bags, and incinerated.

To date, New Jersey authorities have filed no charges against Kelly. The cleanup at the Camden warehouse cost more than $25,000, New York authorities said.

Kelly, who is awaiting trial, is the first person in New York state to be charged with illegally dumping bioinfectious waste.

This year, legislation was introduced in the state Legislature to define bioinfectious waste and methods for its safe disposal. The bill is largely based on California legislation, the only state with such a law.

″Red bag waste is a growing area of concern,″ said Richard Fortuna, executive director of the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, which represents 45 firms specializing in the management and treatment of hazardous waste nationwide.

Gordon Boyd, executive director of the New York Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management, said the problem is nationwide. ″Hospital waste has changed, but disposal systems have not,″ he said. ″There’s a lot less sterilization and reuse and a lot more disposable materials, things used once and thrown away, such as syringes. There’s a lot more plastic and chlorinated compounds.″

Hospital incineration is geared toward paper trash, Boyd said, not the plastic or chlorinated compounds which emit potentially toxic materials.

After incineration, there’s still the problem of disposing of ashes.

Another disposal method is sterilizing the waste and then disposing of it, usually in a landfill. But burying the waste in landfills risks contamination of groundwater and poses dangers to landfill employees who may be exposed to the material, Boyd said.

Some states consider red bag waste to be hazardous; others do not. Regulating hazardous waste comes under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, but red bag waste fails to fit into any categories specified in the law.

The result has been loose regulation of red bag disposal under a hodgepodge of state hazardous waste laws, where they exist.

Key, too, is the relative newness of the issue of red bag waste and, according to some, the growing concern that it may contain the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

That concern was behind the 1982 law in California, introduced by Republican state Sen. John Doolittle.

Doolittle’s administrative aide, Ted Blanchard, said the law would be revised this year because political compromises had forced it to be written so to allow the waste to be double-bagged and dumped into landfills.

″We want to eliminate that completely,″ he said.

Violating the law can lead to fines of up to $25,000.

Although most states specify that hospital waste must be separated by distinctive bag color, there’s no way to stop disposal companies or the hospitals themselves from transferring the red bags into regular trash bags and tossing them into landfills.

Assemblyman Patrick Halpin, who introduced the hospital waste legislation, said New York state also plans to restrict transporting the waste to special trucks because carters now can use rental trucks, which may be leased the next day by someone moving furniture or food.

Hazardous waste firms that want to obey the law object to the lack of uniform regulations.

Jack McCoy, founder of Trade Waste Incineration of Clayton, Mo., complained that the federal government has evaded the issue by failing to establish national regulations.

He claimed that some hospitals he has dealt with find it cheaper to dispose of the waste illegally and face fines than to pay for proper disposal, which could be costly.

″The culprit is the federal government, for doing nothing,″ he said. ″We need standards.″

However, Jacqui Sales, an environmental engineer with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, maintained there is no evidence that red bag waste poses a health problem requiring federal regulations.

The EPA has issued guidelines requiring the separation of the waste, and more detailed guidelines are expected within the next few months, she said.

″We don’t necessarily have to have a dead body, but we have found no link between the waste and a health hazard,″ she said. ″Frankly, no one has been hurt.″

Countered McCoy: ″The feds always wait until something happens, like Love Canal, before they do anything. We in the industry think something should be done now.″

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