Most people grow up knowing what blood is, never giving it a second thought. It’s only when you reach adulthood that it becomes clear just how much of a life-giving role blood plays in our systems. In and of itself, blood is neither safe nor unsafe, but waste that consists of blood and blood products is a different story.
Blood and Blood Products
As medical technology becomes more and more advanced, the practices we use to diagnose and treat various diseases become more complex. In pursuit of the cures currently available for thousands of conditions, scientists have learned to use substances like blood to investigate and examine illnesses, and to experiment with treatments. As the blood used in these processes reaches the end of its usefulness for a particular study, if it comes from an infected patient or is in any way contaminated, it becomes a biohazardous waste item that needs appropriate disposal.
High-income countries like the U.S. generate hazardous waste in quantities of up to 0.5 kg per hospital bed per day, according to the World Health Organization. But what exactly is biohazardous waste, and why does blood and the products derived from it qualify for this category?
The Scope of Biohazards Waste
Biohazardous waste is any type of waste that contains biological hazards, which could be considered a threat to public health or the environment. These may be animal, mineral, medical, bacterial, chemical, or infectious, and most of these require specific methods of disposal. Still, this is very broad terminology, so let’s break it down further to clarify how blood and blood products are potentially dangerous.
- Solid Blood Waste
In terms of blood contamination, solid waste includes any non-sharp items that have come into contact with human or animal blood. These could include protective clothing worn by doctors, dentists and veterinarians, as well as the equipment used in the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. Petri dishes, linen, paper towels, cotton, wool, disposable gloves with blood on them, tubing and specimen cups with traces of blood are all covered under this, whether they have been in contact with blood before or after treatment. The reason for this is even after a patient has been cured of a medical condition, he or she might be carrying other diseases that can be transmitted to an unprotected person.
- Liquid Blood Waste
Biohazardous liquid waste includes blood and other bodily fluids that are still in liquid form. These could be blood drawn for testing purposes, blood that has been diluted with various components to identify pathogens, or blood passed by a patient during various activities.
Liquid can spill and get in contact with unprotected surfaces more easily than solids, but quantities of blood smaller than 25 milliliters are usually treated as solid waste. If the amount of blood and other fluids is more than 25 milliliters, healthcare employees need to collect it and store it in leak-proof containers that are secured so they can’t tip over.
- Sharps Waste
Sharps waste includes any items that have come in contact with blood, serum or plasma, such as needles, microscope slides, scalpels, and broken glass vials. Any of these could contain bacteria present in the blood that can infect the health of the person accessing it. Because sharp items can easily injure anyone who handles them, blood-borne diseases are very easily passed on.
- Pathological Waste
This category covers all body parts that are separated from their owner during surgery, injury or death. Human organs, tissues, anatomical parts and waste materials, whether they come out of funeral preparations or from biopsies, are all potentially infectious to others. They have the same conditions and bacteria as the host from whom the blood was taken, and that doesn’t include any undiagnosed conditions.
- Microbiological Waste
This is the most common type of waste generated by organizations such as laboratories, which includes disposable culture dishes and specimens as well as agents used to cause conditions in laboratory specimens. The waste might contain pathogens and be infectious, or it could simply be contaminated by exposure to the air.
The company or institution generating these types of waste are responsible for complete destruction of the biohazard, whether they handle it internally or outsource it to a waste management vendor.
Disposing of Blood Product Waste
A very specific process is needed to dispose of blood and blood products. Healthcare staff are required to gather solid biohazardous waste in a designated area. They collect liquids in leak-proof containers, which can also be put into a secondary container for extra safekeeping. Liquid blood products can be treated with bleach to reduce the risk, unless they also contain chemical waste such as blood from a chemotherapy patient. The containers can be autoclaved to for decontamination purposes and to ensure the containers are harmless for handling on the outside.
Blood waste of all types can be placed in red medical waste bags, which should only contain substances that can spread blood-borne diseases. That means leaving out any items that contain bodily fluids without blood.