Medical Waste Defined
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Medical Waste Defined

Perhaps the hardest part of this whole issue is deciding exactly which materials are hazardous and which are not. There is a lot of conflicting advice and the practice manager may not know what to believe. Of course, these definitions can vary slightly from one state to the next (click here for more info on state guidelines) and even one county to the next but following these very practical guidelines established by The Council of State Governments will most likely keep a practice out of trouble.


In some areas, any business that generates medical waste must register with the state or county, pay a fee and be issued a permit for operations. This permit (and related fee) is often based on the quantity (pounds or cubic feet) of medical waste produced. The medical waste regulation will spell out the procedures for obtaining this permit.

Since the amount of the permit fee is often determined by the amount of waste generated, careful maintenance of the program is essential to keep the amount of waste to a minimum. Be sure to ask about "exemptions for small quantity generators;" often these regulations will exempt business that produce under a certain amount of waste per month. this exemption usually applies only to the registration - it does not mean that the disposal process rules need not be followed.

Primates & Lab Animals

Although rare in most private practices, there are situations where veterinary hospital staff would be required to handle non-human primates. OSHA has recently amended the BPS to classify research animalsí blood as hazardous when the animal has been infected with hepatitis or HIV. Some states have included all non-human primate wastes in their definitions of medical waste, so check the wording of the actual regulation if this situation applies to your practice; donít rely on the interpretation of others.


Many people misinterpret the definition of sharps to include glass coverslips and slides when their community regulation does not require it. In most cases, glass coverslips and slides are considered sharps and therefore medical waste when they contain a pathogen that is capable of infecting humans. In most veterinary practices, this is not the case. Parasites, bacteria or other potential pathogens are essentially inactivated by the process of the test. If the organism is no longer viable and can not infect humans, the glass object is not considered "contaminated" and therefore not subject to the medical waste disposal rules. Be sure to read the definitions of the regulation carefully to determine whether viability of the pathogen is mentioned.


When the syringe is still attached to the needle, the entire unit is considered a "sharps" object. When the syringe is not attached to the needle, some states classify the syringe as regular trash unless it is contaminated with a pathogen that can infect humans. Other states classify the syringes themselves as medical waste items. Of course, needles should always be contained in a sharps container prior to disposal, but in some states, sealed sharps containers from veterinary practices may be disposed of in the regular trash as long as they do not contain pathogens capable of infecting humans. Only obtaining a copy of the actual regulation and reading the definitions of sharp and medical waste can clarify the issue for each practice.

Chemotherapy Waste

All waste from chemotherapy operations - medication vials, pads, gowns, gloves, IV bags and tubing, etc - is capable of harming humans who come in contact with it and requires special handling. Most states require chemotherapy disposal containers to be yellow instead of red and contain the universal chemotherapy warning symbol. This waste is usually disposed of in the same manner as other medical waste.


Tissues obtained from animals during routine surgical or medical procedures (e.g. ovaries, testicles, biopsy specimens) are normally considered regular trash unless the animal is suspected to have a disease that is transmissible to humans. Whole carcasses from non-infectious animals are often cremated or buried because of aesthetic concerns, but donít confuse this with medical waste disposal requirements.

Client Issues

Every veterinary practice in the world generates some waste that could be considered hazardous to the staff, general public or environment. Storage, disposal and management of these wastes is becoming a bigger concern for every practice. Some practices have started charging a special fee to clients to recover these additional costs. Others consider it an overhead expense and just build the costs into the standard fees they charge. Regardless of how it is handled, the practice must balance all the necessary rules with the need to stay profitable.

Politics being what it is, medial waste from private homes (e.g., diabetics' insulin syringes) are usually exempt from these disposal regulations, but waste generated in the course of a business must be collected for proper disposal.

Click here to see a chart of the most common medical waste items in a veterinary practice.


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The information on these pages is excerpted from
The Veterinary Safety & Health Digest,
Copyright 2001 Philip J. Seibert, Jr., CVT  All Rights Reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced for distribution without prior permission from the publisher.



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This page was last updated on 01/24/14.

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Philip J. Seibert, Jr., CVT, 1998-2014 - All Rights Reserved