New Recommendations for Safe Needle Disposal
It is estimated that that between eight and nine million people use syringes at home, generating two to three billion used needles each year in the United States. About two-thirds of the needle users are injecting for medicinal purposes like diabetes.
The majority of those needles, however, are being discarded in household trash, posing a critical public health concern.
EPA Revises Recommendations for Needle Disposal
In December 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced new recommendations for disposal of syringes used by people who inject outside of a healthcare setting. The EPA no longer recommends that patients use a sturdy household container and throw that in the trash when it is full. Instead, the EPA suggests participating in one of two programs:
- A community program (such as a community drop-off center, household hazardous waste facility, residential “special waste” pickup service or syringe exchange program); or
- A national disposal program (such as a “sharps” mail-back program or at-home needle-destruction devices).
Household waste is regulated at the state or municipal level; therefore, the majority of states have not adopted the new EPA recommendations and still allow needles to be thrown directly into the garbage. These needles end up in recycling and solid-waste disposal systems, posing a serious threat of needle-stick injuries to family members, waste workers, janitorial workers and others in the community.
Everyone Has Access to Disposal Programs
While few states offer community programs, all individuals have access to national programs, at a cost. These include needle mail-back programs or at-home needle destruction devices. The at-home needle-destruction devices typically last three or more years and destroy the needle, so the syringe can be thrown away after the needle is removed and destroyed. The mail-back containers are purchased online or from participating pharmacies and provide a “sharps” container along with a mail-back container, postage and shipping instructions.
To help cover the cost of these needle-disposal products, a bill (HR 2841) was introduced this summer by Representative Mike Ferguson (R-NJ) and Ted Strickland (D-OH). This bill will provide coverage of supplies associated with injecting insulin, home needle-destruction devices and needle and lancet disposal through a sharps-by-mail or similar program under Part D of the Medicare Program. The effective date for this bill is January 2007.
“This is a great first step,” says Ben Hoffman, MD, board president of the Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal. “By including coverage of needle disposal under Part D of the new Medicare program, a large percentage of home needle users will be offered safer solutions at an affordable price.”
Some States Get Sharp About Needle Disposal
Some states have already addressed the issue of safe needle disposal and offer community programs for residents:
Wisconsin: All medical waste is treated the same; it doesn’t matter if it is generated at home or in hospitals. Wisconsin has more than 1,000 community programs throughout the state, making it convenient for residents to dispose of used needles.
California: In January 2005 the governor signed a bill that encourages all household hazardous waste programs in the state to accept used needles. Residents should call their county solid-waste department and find out when, where and how needles can be collected in their community.
New York: 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. For a list of facilities in your area, call the New York Department of Public Health at (800) 541-2437.
Florida: Nearly one-half of the counties in Florida have a community drop-off program that accepts used sharps. Call your county public health department to find out if your county has one.
Coalition Working for Safer Conditions
The nonprofit Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal is working to inform states and local communities that needle-stick injuries are a preventable health risk as well as to encourage them to provide safe, convenient disposal options to home needle users. We recognize that changing used-needle disposal methods is a great challenge, but we believe the Coalition can help states and communities to offer safe needle-disposal solutions. Bringing community and state leaders together to determine the best solution for that state is the only way that disposal rules and practices will change.
To find out if a needle-disposal program is available in your community, log on to www.safeneedledisposal.org to access the Coalition database of existing nationwide programs, or call your local county or city public health department or solid-waste division.