The Contagious Hospital
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(4), 11. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Medical waste has increased greatly in the past 10 years, partly because hospitals use more disposable items, such as syringes, cutlery, food trays, bedpans, and even linen. The public especially fears medical waste, such as syringes washing up on beaches, but the likeliness of acquiring AIDS or hepatitis in this way is very small. The real danger, which has received far less notice, stems from the 6,000 substandard medical-waste incinerators at US hospitals. Usually concentrated in populous urban areas, they spew tons of toxic emissions, including dioxin, heavy metals, and acid gases, into the air, averaging 10 to 100 times more per gram waste burned than emissions from well-controlled municipal waste incinerators. Hospital incinerators also leave large quantities of toxic ash that can contaminate surface water and ground water when dumped in landfills.

Switzerland and Germany offer a better model for handling medical waste, sending it to regional incineration facilities with advanced air-pollution control technologies. Both countries require complete manifests of transported wastes to insure that all medical refuse goes through the system. Small generators of medical waste such as labs, nursing and funeral homes, and medical and veterinary clinics, could also send their refuse to regional treatment sites. [Hershkowitz, A. (1990) Without a trace: Handling medical waste safely. Technology Review, 93(6), 35-44. Adapted from Future Survey Annual, 1992.]


Environmental issues are complex problems that span international boundaries. The solution to these problems will only come from interdisciplinary collaboration and inter-national discussion. Universities must continue to work toward trans-disciplinary collaboration, and not all are taking the lead in their communities. Politicians must learn to keep science separate from pork barreling, and must rely on experts for informed decisions on funding and sponsorship of policies.

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