Responding to recent incidents in which potentially dangerous debris has washed ashore in La Jolla, the County Board of Supervisors Wednesday approved stronger guidelines to regulate the disposal of infectious medical waste.
Among the proposals adopted was one by Supervisor Susan Golding that requires all medical facilities that produce such waste to properly destroy the debris by incineration or exposure to steam. The existing ordinance required only those medical facilities that produce more than 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of waste a month to comply with the disposal procedures.
“My objective is to make sure the ordinance covers small disposers and then determine what other things have to be done to protect the public health,” said Golding, the District 3 representative responsible for the La Jolla area. “I think it is frightening to have body parts and other medical waste floating onto our shores. We need to act before this becomes a gigantic problem.”
Disturbing dumping incidents in recent months, including an episode when a vial of blood, a syringe and other medical waste washed up onto La Jolla beaches Oct. 29 and 30, spurred Golding to present her recommendations on an emergency basis. Concern raised about medical waste dumping was further heightened when 12 to 14 bags of such debris appeared in a North County landfill, Golding said.
Golding’s proposals, which call for reviews of current waste-disposal procedures and fines against illegal dumpers, were not originally on the meeting’s agenda.
The recommendations were passed unanimously by the four supervisors attending the session. Supervisor Leon Williams was absent.
Golding said she was disturbed to find, in researching medical waste-disposal procedures, that major loopholes exist.
“You can have 40 doctors each disposing 10 pounds (of waste a month) and together that’s way over the ordinance’s limits,” Golding said. “But, the way the ordinance is written now, it has absolutely no effect. These loopholes have to be stopped.
“No matter how big or no matter how small, whether it is a large facility or a single doctor, anybody who produces medical waste must dispose it in a proper manner,” Golding said. She also lobbied to have the term “infectious waste” redefined to include blood and urine samples.
“Such byproducts are usually tested for specific bacteria,” Golding said. “Negative samples are routinely thrown by medical facilities into the sewer system. But there’s always the possibility that these samples may be infected with disease for which they were not tested. That’s why we need to dispose of it properly.”
Even if such samples are not infected, Golding insisted, they need to be destroyed because they are organic compounds that can become breeding grounds for infections.
Golding’s recommendations also called for the formation of an ad hoc Medical Waste Review Committee.
The committee is expected to include members of the Hospital Council, the San Diego County Medical Society, the Navy, the Health Department and the Board of Supervisors in a review of disposal practices, Golding said.
“With good advice from the health community, the medical waste and solid waste disposal people, we need to ask ourselves whether our current procedures are adequate, especially considering the AIDS epidemic,” she said.
Fines now being assessed for illegal medical-waste disposal will also be re-evaluated, Golding said. Under the existing ordinance, it is left to a judge’s discretion to assess a maximum penalty of $25,000 for illegal dumping.
“We need to determine whether or not our current fine system is an adequate deterrent to prevent illegal disposal,” she said.
The medical waste found recently was traced to Tri-City Medical Center, whose officials in a preliminary investigation have determined that one of its employees improperly disposed of the bags in a regular trash bin, instead of placing the contents in a special bin.
A Times story Wednesday reported that the employee was dismissed in connection with the improper dumping.
Jennifer Velez, a Tri-City Medical Center spokeswoman, confirmed Wednesday that the employee is no longer with the Oceanside hospital, but denied that the worker was fired because of the incident.
“The reason the person is no longer with us has nothing to do with the medical waste disposal,” Velez said. She declined to say why the employee was dismissed, saying it is a confidential personnel matter.
“Our investigation is still ongoing, and no blame has been placed for the incident,” Velez said.