Changing the way we dispose of used needles is a great challenge. Over the next year, 9 million people will administer at least 3 billion injections outside the traditional healthcare setting — most likely in their own home. Two-thirds of those are injecting for medicinal purposes ranging from diabetes to arthritis to hepatitis. Limited disposal solutions mean the majority of these needles will end up in the household trash, posing a serious health risk to solid waste workers, neighbors and the entire community.
In December 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced new recommendations on the disposal of used syringes generated by self-injectors in non-traditional health care facilities in the United States, i.e., at home. EPA no longer recommends that patients use a sturdy household container and throw that in the trash when it is full. Instead, EPA now suggests participating in one of two programs: a community program (such as drop-off centers, household hazardous waste facilities, residential “special waste” pick-up services or syringe exchange programs) or a national disposal program (including sharps mail-back programs and at-home needle destruction devices).
EPA's new guidelines are only the first step toward reducing the risk. Home-generated medical waste, a part of household waste, is not regulated at the state or municipal level. The next step is to work with states to implement the new EPA guidelines at the local level and to increase the number of states with laws that reduce needle stick injuries.
The National Solid Wastes Management Association and some of its members are part of the Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal, a national non-profit organization working with states and local communities to raise awareness that needle stick injuries are a preventable health risk and to offer safe, convenient disposal options to home needle users.
Some states already offer community programs for their residents. For example:
In July 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning the disposal of needles in household garbage. This bill follows earlier legislation that encourages all household hazardous waste programs in the state to accept used needles. Communities have until September 2008 to develop and implement effective needle disposal programs for local residents.
Nearly one-half of the counties in Florida have a drop-off program that accepts used sharps.
A recently passed syringe access bill will provide safe needle disposal solutions for all patients injecting at home.
Many hospitals in New Jersey accept used sharps from the community. In addition, pending legislation suggests adopting a sharps disposal component as an amendment to the solid waste management plan for each county.
By law, all New York hospitals and nursing homes are required to accept used sharps from the community. More than 1,000 hospitals and nursing homes currently accept needles.
All medical waste is treated the same, regardless of where it is generated. Wisconsin has set up more than 1,000 community programs throughout the state, making it convenient for residents to properly dispose of used needles.
The coalition also is spreading the word to needle users that they can play a critical role in reducing the risk by taking advantage of better disposal options where available and supporting changes to make these options available at a reasonable cost.
On June 9, 2005, U.S. Congressmen Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., and Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, introduced House Resolution 2841, which seeks to offset the cost of home needle destruction devices and the disposal of needles and lancets for insulin users through a sharps-by-mail or similar program under Part D of the Medicare Program. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate on June 29, 2006, by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
For more information on the coalition and available programs, visit www.safeneedledisposal.org or contact Executive Director Jennifer Schumann at 713-980-3120.