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“Wasting” Time at The Beach & The Syringe Frenzy

As one walks along the shore while the summer sun is shining, one may not know that these pristine clear waters could have been the same place that hazardous medical waste may have passed through in the past.

If beaches would be strewn with medications, syringes and other health related waste, they would not be popular vacation destinations. You do not usually see health care waste near your home or on your beaches. It is hard to imagine that in the 1980’s medical waste began washing ashore on the eastern coast of the United States causing a severe turmoil.

An article in the New York Times dated July 19, 1988, was titled Medical Waste Keeps Three New York Beaches Shut. Officials found thirty needle syringes at Midland Beach and two at South Beach on Staten Island. The beaches remained closed by the New York City Health Department until three clean tides were free of the syringes. This meant that three clean tides needed to be syringe free on every affected shore.

At Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways, park workers found eight syringes. The beaches there were also closed. Up to 20,000 swimmers could be present on a typical hot weekday during the summer.

This scare of 1988 caused a panic among beach goers. The people immediately thought that if they stepped on a syringe and received a puncture wound they would contract AIDS. The newspapers and radio stations had a heyday of repeating the story over and over until it caused massive hysteria. It was the time when AIDS was a mysterious and life threatening disease.

The news media exploited the public fear that the needles were tainted with AIDS. A spokesman for the Nassau County Health Department was flooded with calls from beach goers. One mother called asking if her son would contract AIDS from swimming in the water.

After these disastrous occurrences, The Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 was established. This program outlined guidelines for describing medical waste and was conceived to track medical waste by separating, storing, labeling and packing these materials. Then it was picked up by a local medical waste company, transported to treatment and disposal locations. This program went into effect on June 24, 1989 and expired on June 21, 1991. Although, at the time this program was instituted, it was voluntary, four states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey participated fully. This federally regulated program ended after two years and then the states were given the responsibility to maintain medical waste standards with their own independent programs. During the two year period of the existence of the Medical Tracking Act of 1988, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was impelled to create regulations on the correct management of medical waste. This program although not renewed became the model for tracking medical waste. It helped medical facilities introduce systems to make sure they knew where their waste was going and that it would be disposed of conscientiously.

Medical waste disposal ordinances differ from state to state. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was put into law by congress which resulted in the formation of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). OSHA assures that working conditions are safe and healthful for working men and women in the USA. It sets and enforces standards by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance. Companies can have its staff schooled on the laws through an online compliance training programs. The guidelines of OSHA contain the minimal requirements based on what is defined as medical waste. For example, OSHA defines tainted sharps as any object that can breach the skin. This can include broken glass, needles, scalpels, and even the ends of dental wires. Each state may define sharps and biohazard materials differently. Texas, for example, takes this one step further. It characterizes sharps as hypodermic needles, hypodermic syringes, razor blades and blood culture bottles. Tattoo and acupuncture needles are also classified medical waste. States have the option of specification of which categories and how this waste is managed by the medical community. Most states ultimately did adopt similar plans to the first federal act and are in line with OSHA standards.

In 1991, OSHA instituted the Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. This program is supposed to protect approximately 5.6 million health care industry workers. The majority of the states have enacted the OSHA standards to decrease and eliminate the risks of workers being exposed to the HIV and Hepatitis B Virus (HBV).

There are variations in each state as to how each state defines medical waste. This is because there are several different identities for medical waste. For example, medical waste can be called biomedical waste, infectious waste and biohazardous waste. Essentially, all fifty states have to some extent regulated medical waste. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has their own definition of medical waste: “medical waste is hazardous material, which comes with extensive regulations and certifications”. Knowledge of local laws is vital for medical waste facilities to protect themselves from any legal liabilities.

People may wonder why has medical waste become so much more abundant. According to some traditional incinerator fans, environmentalists are to blame. Prior to 1960, medical waste was generally burned in incinerators which are similar to apartment house garbage incinerators. Since 1960 two factors came into play: The first was the increase of plastic tubing’s and syringes. Second and more importantly, was that the “environmentalists” mandated

more severe restraints on what could be burned and where it could be burned. From then on medical waste had to be hauled out at $40,000 a truckload to various regulated locations.

Palm Beach – Florida

These regulations and plans would seem to have eliminated any major occurrences of the menace of beach contamination and closings of the 1980’s . Surprisingly as recently as January 27, 2017, needles and blood vials were spotted in the winter resort of Palm Beach. Diane Buhler is the founder of the beach cleaning organization, Friends of Palm Beach. In 2017, she stated that medical waste citing’s had increased that year. The group picks up hundreds of pounds of trash each week on Palm Beach. She claimed that she saw needles and filled blood collection tubes every day. Buhler found that the labels on the medical waste were linked to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and other West Indies islands. Both cruise and cargo ships dump their waste illegally in international waters just a few miles off Palm Beach. She called on private citizens to clean up their own beaches. Diane asked them to , “maintain their beaches like they maintain their hedges”. The public health communications manager of Palm Beach emphasized that he does not see any more medical waste than other garbage. He felt that generally the medical community disposed of its waste properly, but it’s the few careless individuals who do not. Buhler (head of the beach cleaning organization) brings the medical waste that she collects to the Palm Beach Fire Station. She is confident that they know what to do with it.

Clean beaches are essential for tourism. Beaches are the main reason why people come to Palm Beach. Hopefully these appearances of medical waste will be monitored carefully so that tourists and residents can enjoy their beautiful beaches safely.

Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey introduced a bill called, The Medical Waste Management Act of 2013, in order to track down the guilty parties of ocean pollution. He responded to the complaints of his constituents that dozens of syringes had washed up at Island Beach State Park in early 2013. This brought back horrible memories of the incidents mentioned above in 1988. Here are the key features of the plan:

1) To decrease the release of toxins when oceans are exposed to medical waste. These toxins are passed along to fish which in turn are consumed by humans. These toxins can negatively affect human health and development.

2) To ensure economic stability of beach resorts . To avoid closure of beaches causing a drop in tourism dollars that beach communities rely on for revenues.

Learning from the past, New York and New Jersey maintain their own system to control what they call, “syringe tides”. The main part of this program is to catch the debris before it can get to Jersey Shore beaches. This plan relies on environmental surveillance groups as well as special cleanups by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They report incidents of medical waste citing’s quickly to efficiently eliminate the waste before it gets to the beaches. Beach closures have declined from more than seventy miles in 1988 to less than four miles in 1989 . Closures have remained at similar low levels until today.Although the Federal Government has instituted many plans and laws , it is up to the states and even more importantly to individual citizens to be diligent in the protection of our beaches from toxic medical waste. Health care facilities can be sure that its medical waste gets treated properly by hiring a local medical waste company which picks up and treats. Most companies contract out the infectious waste treatment to a third party. Choosing MedAssure as your medical waste hauler can give you the peace of mind that the biohazardous waste will be handled safely from start to finish.

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