Improper Disposal

Last updated on April 13, 2021

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Whether in the workplace or the home, the consequences of improper handling and disposal of medical and pharmaceutical wastes can be serious. The health and safety of healthcare providers, waste workers, and communities is at risk. Individual states and federal agencies including OSHA, DOT, USPS, DEA, and EPA regulate the handling, collection, transportation, and disposal of both pharmaceutical and medical wastes from businesses. Disposal guidelines and laws have also been put in place to provide safe disposal options for consumers.


Drug Hazards in the Home

Venture into any American household, and you will likely find unused or expired medications. Sixty percent of patients keep partially completed opioid prescriptions “for later,”  while more than 80% don’t store their narcotic painkillers in a locked cabinet. This is a problem because most addicts get their drugs (at least initially) from friends or family.

Storing drugs unsafely can be a deadly decision if those drugs are ingested by children or pets. Each year, 60,000 children, 70% of whom are toddlers, are accidentally poisoned by prescription or over-the-counter medications, which often have a sweet taste, leading children to mistake them for candy. In 2008, poison control centers received more than 50,000 calls involving overdoses on children’s vitamins. Pets are also vulnerable to accidental poisoning.  Nearly 50% of calls to the Pet Poison Hotline involve pets ingesting human medication. Even a single extra-strength Tylenol can cause liver failure in a cat.

Drug Hazards in the Workplace

Like patient-dispensed drugs that end up unused in the home, drugs can also expire in cabinets and “sample closets” at the doctor’s office. Managing pharmaceutical hazardous waste and controlled drugs safely can protect the environment as well as reduce the opportunity for diversion. In some states, drugs cannot be placed in the trash or down the drain, even if they are not hazardous or controls. Some medical waste disposal companies can help with a variety of safe and compliant options for both disposal of expired non-controlled and controlled inventory drugs, as well as patients’ unused medications.

Environmental Safety Hazards

Flushing medications should be the last resort for disposal due to potential effects on plants, fish, and even our drinking water. Depending on the medications, water treatment plants can only filter out about half of the pharmaceuticals that reach them through flushing and other means, such as ground water and landfill leachate runoff. Officials urge residents to use alternate disposal solutions.


Twice a year, the DEA partners with many local law enforcement organizations nationwide to collect ultimate user (household) medications at National Drug Take Back Day events. Alternatively, consumers can reach out to their local retail pharmacy for TakeAway Medication Recovery System envelopes. These DEA-compliant, pre-addressed, and prepaid envelopes are simply taken home, filled with unused drugs, and mailed for proper and safe disposal.


Workplace Medical Waste Safety Hazards

If you aren’t familiar with the phrase “syringe tide,” thank your state environmental regulators for medical waste disposal regulations. In the late 1980s, shocked New Jersey beachgoers encountered used syringes, blood-filled vials, and other forms of medical waste littering the state’s beaches. This crisis led Congress to enact the “Medical Waste Tracking Act” (MWTA) in 1988. This landmark legislation created a two-year pilot program in four northeastern states and Puerto Rico to regulate the collection, transportation, and disposal of medical waste from healthcare facilities.

When the MWTA expired in 1991, individual states began enacted regulations to protect their citizens and the environment from potential harm. Improper disposal of medical waste can not only result in fines, it puts both healthcare providers, housekeepers and waste handlers at risk.

  • Healthcare providers: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard in 1991. OSHA requires that sharps be handled carefully and disposed of properly to protect employees. Accidental needlesticks and cuts can lead to bloodborne illnesses.
  • Waste workers: Improperly discarded sharps can make an already hazardous job even more dangerous. Improperly discarded sharps such as syringes represent a serious hazard to solid waste disposal and recovery facilities.

It’s often difficult for medical waste generators such as those in the long-term care, home health, retail pharmacy, medical, dental, and veterinary industries to monitor regulatory changes and comply with federal as well as the 50-plus sets of state medical and pharmaceutical waste management regulations. That’s why many organizations in these industries rely on professional medical waste disposal companies for not only collection and disposal, but also regulatory compliance.

Consumer Syringe Disposal

More and more medications administered through self-injection are being developed. As a result, there is an increase in the number of sharps needing proper and safe disposal. While federal and state regulations cover medical waste disposal in businesses, states also publish guidelines and regulations for consumer disposal of sharps, such as syringes and injection pens used in the self-treatment of diabetes and other conditions. Ordinances leading to fines for households that don’t safely dispose of their sharps, are also starting to pop up. What’s acceptable in one city or state may be illegal in another.

Needlestick Safety Hazards in the Community

Public education, as well as accessible and affordable disposal options, can reduce the incidence of discarded medical syringes, needles, and other sharps into the trash. No one wants children to be injured by used syringes left on playgrounds and beaches. In March 2017, San Francisco collected more than 13,000 used discarded syringes from public places. Reports around the country are frightening. One 6-year-old girl mistook a syringe for a thermometer and put it into her mouth, while an 11-year-old stepped on a used needle while swimming in the ocean. Fortunately, most people who encounter used sharps don’t suffer long-term health effects, but they still must endure a battery of medical tests and can suffer psychological trauma. For these reasons, many communities have started to require the safe collection and disposal of syringes used by residents.


Whether it’s at home or at work, proper management of medication and syringes protects family members, pets, workplaces, and the environment. There are many great cost-effective, easy, and compliant solutions available to all.

Contact Sharps Compliance to learn more about our pharmaceutical and medical waste disposal solutions.

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Hazards of Improper Disposal of Medical Waste Infographic

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Wanda Voigt holds a BA in Nursing from Texas Woman’s University and a BBA in Business Management from Texas A&M University. In Fall 2021, Wanda will begin her Master Jurisprudence in Health Law and Policy at Texas A&M University. Wanda has over 20 years of clinical practice in both hospital and private practice practicing in various specialties.

As the Director of Regulatory Compliance, Wanda assists Sharps’ customers in evaluating current federal and state-specific medical and pharmaceutical waste regulations, implementing compliant regulated medical and pharmaceutical waste management programs and processes, and developing training programs for both internal and external customers.

published in Medical Waste, Medication DisposalTagged