All healthcare providers have a duty of care to ensure that medical waste is suitably managed and disposed of in line with healthcare waste disposal legislation. We should expect all staff working with potentially hazardous materials to be aware of waste management protocols. However, it is of course human nature to make mistakes. The consequences of improper disposal of dental waste can be dire, therefore professionals should take measures to minimise the chance of such errors occurring.
Better understanding fosters diligence. Everyone knows that safely disposing of waste is important. However, a deeper understanding of why and the potential consequences of not doing so will help ensure staff are especially mindful while going about their duties.
What could go wrong?
Recently, members of the public were horrified to learn about a catastrophic failure in the improper disposal of waste. A company working for the NHS had been unable to incinerate waste in a timely fashion and kept quiet about it. This consequently resulted in stockpiling hundreds of tonnes of hazardous materials including human body parts.[i] This incident did not pose a direct threat to the public, but nonetheless, the story was widely covered in the press and was met with shock and disgust. It is a timely reminder that such failures can have disastrous consequences, both practically and to a business’s reputation.
Such improper disposal stories are attention-grabbing. However, even small-scale lapses can create big problems, particularly in the aggregate.
Mercury has historically been widely used in dental amalgam. Its vapour has long been known as a health hazard. The phrase “Mad as a hatter” is commonly believed to have originated from people witnessing hat makers in the throes of mercury poisoning, due to the use of mercury nitrate to cure felt. Whether this origin is fictional or not, the threat of mercury vapour to you, your staff and your patients is very real. Mercury poisoning can result in irreversible neurological damage. It is for this reason that mercury suppression agents are utilised.
Silver has seen widespread use in medical applications thanks to its intrinsic antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It is well known as a classic constituent of dental amalgam. Also, more recently silver nanoparticles have been incorporated into a host of different biomaterials used for everything from implant coatings to treatments for oral cancers. However, these same qualities make it potentially harmful in the wild. While the vast majority of silver can be safely removed by bodily processes, dissolved silver can accumulate in organs and fat deposits. In humans, excessive exposure to silver can lead to irreversible pigmentation of the skin and/or eyes (argyria and argyrosis respectively). Silver is comparatively safe as far as hazardous elements go, however, high concentrations of silver contaminating and accumulating in water is a concern. Even trace amounts entering the sewage system will add up.
Blood & sharps
The primary danger from sharps is the potential to be exposed to bloodborne viruses such as Hepatitis and HIV. There are still tens of thousands of needlestick injuries a year and around 10% of which occur after disposal. Thankfully, the risk of transmission isn’t absolute. However, even when no illness develops this can be a very stressful and anxiety-provoking experience for those affected. Even on materials that are not sharp, appropriate care should be taken with items contaminated with blood. NHS Employers – Managing the Risks of Sharps.
Keep it simple, keep it safe
The more complicated a system, the more room there is for mistakes to creep in and improper disposal to take place.
The Department of Health has outlined a colour coding system which is considered best practice for healthcare waste management and segregation. Initial Medical follows these recommendations and has produced Colour Coding Characters. These are expressly designed to be easy to understand and easy to remember. This system facilitates easy understanding and recall, keeping things simple so mistakes aren’t made.
Environmental law specifies that waste producers, such as your practice, have a “cradle to grave” responsibility over that waste. This ranges from control and storage, through transportation, until eventual disposal. By using a reputable partner you can rest assured that your obligations are met and therefore all materials will be disposed of with the utmost care.