Medical Waste Probes Lead to Nowhere
Last month, when three atropine injectors washed up on San Diego’s beaches, the Hazardous Waste Task Force’s detective work began.
Like seashore sleuths, the intergovernmental group traced the devices, tiny needles that automatically inject an antidote for nerve gas, to a Maryland manufacturer. The company checked the lot numbers and determined that the injectors had been sold to a military supply depot in Tracy, Calif., near Stockton.
Linda Miller, spokeswoman for the task force, remembers thinking she and her colleagues were close to tracking down who had dumped the potentially harmful drugs into the tides. But they would get no closer.
Because the Tracy supply depot serves all branches of the military, and because no detailed records are kept of which branch gets which lot numbers, the trail ended there. The investigation, like others before it, was closed.
“From time to time we’ve been able to get that far, and then we’re just up against a brick wall,” said Miller, who works for the San Diego County district attorney’s office. The task force, she explained, made up of representatives of 20 local, state and federal agencies, “cannot point fingers at somebody without having proof.”
In recent weeks, after nearly a year without an incident, a mother lode of syringes, prescription drug vials and intravenous tubing--not to mention other trash like hundreds of C rations, a Navy life jacket and a sailor’s cap that said “U.S.S. Ogden"--have been found near the shoreline from Carlsbad to Coronado.
But Miller says that, aside from catching someone red-handed, it is virtually impossible to prove illegal ocean dumping has occurred. In two years and dozens of discoveries of medical waste, she said, the task force has not been able to charge anyone with illegal dumping of medical waste into the ocean.
Part of the problem is federal law allows dumping 50 miles offshore, meaning that beached waste could have been disposed of legally. Moreover, illegally dumped waste is unlikely to bear a return address.
And, even in the rare instances in which identifying marks are available, like a prescription bottle that washed up in Carlsbad last week that bore a label from the pharmacy of the amphibious assault ship Okinawa, the mystery of who dumped what, when and where, usually remains unsolvable.
Chief Petty Officer Martin W. Wicklund, a Navy spokesman, says that, deserving or not, the Navy is usually the prime suspect when beaches are fouled with medical waste.
“Whenever this happens, a lot of fingers start pointing, and, as one of the largest maritime users in the area, we are the ones they go to first,” he said. “But we have regulations that are far stricter than a cruise line or a tuna line or just a recreational boater. We’re under a lot more scrutiny than anybody else.”
The Okinawa prescription bottle, he said, is a good example of the problem. Did someone break Navy rules and illegally dump a load of waste off the San Diego-based ship? Did a sailor accidentally drop the bottle over the side? There is no way to know, Wicklund said.
A sailor “could have been on a fishing cruise on the weekend and lost it,” Wicklund said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s very difficult to track this down.”
Partly in response to such frustration, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and 18 cities passed new ordinances last year, tightening restrictions on medical waste disposal on land.
The ordinances, which went into effect last July, require all medical establishments to file documents with the county detailing the type and volume of medical wastes they generate, as well as their storage methods and disposal arrangements.
For the first time, all producers of medical waste, not just large hospitals, are required to treat infectious waste through a process called autoclaving, which heats the material under pressure.
The new ordinances also require that every bag of medical waste be conspicuously labeled with the international biohazard symbol and the producer’s name. And penalties for violators are stiff: up to a year in jail or $15,000 in fines.
At the time the ordinances were passed, Supervisor Susan Golding said they were a means of preventing problems “or, at the very least, making it easier to track down and punish” violators. “Before, you could produce up to 220 pounds a month . . . and literally throw it in the trash can,” she said. “From now on, if you produce even 1 ounce of infectious waste, you’ll be held to the same standard as the big hospitals.”
According to the chief of the county’s hazardous materials management division, Vicki Gallagher, only about 400 of the estimated 2,500 businesses that produce medical waste have been inspected. Of those, about 10% have had significant violations, such as the improper disposal of needles, and no cases involving small waste producers have yet been turned over to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
Last month, however, the improved definitions of medical waste in the new ordinances helped ensure that one large hospital was properly cited for illegal waste disposal. Kaiser Foundation Hospital received four notices of violation for dumping biomedical and infectious waste in the Sycamore county landfill in Santee.
“Kaiser has been regulated for a number of years with existing state laws,” said LeAnn Williams, a supervising hazardous materials specialist with the county. “But the local ordinance gave a more clear definition of infectious waste. It was a clearer violation for all concerned.” Without a local ordinance, the case would have been harder to prove, she said.
But offshore, rules governing infectious wastes are harder to monitor--and to enforce. And the risks are in some ways greater. Unlike landfills or dumpsters, where illegal dumping often occurs, the beach lures people. What is dumped in the ocean can pop up right where people are least protected: underfoot.
“The thing that you might argue is that potentially it is more hazardous for the public when you dump in the ocean because we all go to the beach barefoot and walk around in the sand,” Miller said.
Richard MacManus, founder of the Carlsbad-based People for a Clean Ocean, agreed.
“It’s the naive person who’s going to be walking on something like that--or a tiny child. There’s obviously a very dangerous potential there,” he said. “The current issue about medical waste in the U.S. Navy obviously has to be scrutinized, whether it has to go back to the Pentagon or whether the individual cities or counties need to make stricter regulations.”
The Navy has scores of rules governing waste disposal of all types, including regulations that prohibit any offshore dumping of medical waste--even outside the 50-mile federal boundary--unless the health and safety of the crew is threatened.
“Normally, when a ship is operating for a short period of time here in the local area, they’ll retain medical waste on board until the ship comes in,” Wicklund said, adding that any dumping that occurs more than 50 miles out must be properly sterilized, packaged and weighted to prevent waste from coming ashore. In addition, Navy rules prohibit the disposal of needles and syringes at sea under any circumstances.
Those who don’t follow the rules, Wicklund said, will be held accountable. “Anybody found to be illegally dumping would be subject to punishment under uniform code of military justice,” he said.
Like the Hazardous Waste Task Force, however, the Navy does not have a lengthy list of prosecutions. Wicklund could not produce a single instance. Instead, the Navy is hoping preventive education about medical waste will keep it off the beaches.
“A commanding officer’s first priority isn’t hazardous waste but it better be,” said an agent for the Naval Investigative Service, the branch of the Navy responsible for scrutinizing medical waste wash-ups. “All you need is one or two situations like the stuff floating up on a beach and it turns public opinion around. We’re trying to hammer that into the CO’s, that they have got to watch the ships more carefully.”
Wicklund agreed, pointing out that, although the regulations are already in place, there have been recent efforts to reemphasize the importance of following them.
“We’ve not so much made it stricter as made it clearer,” he said. “Education is ongoing, and we take it very seriously.”
In the meantime, however, when waste appears under beach towels of San Diegans, Miller fears there is little the task force will be able to do to apprehend the violators. She questions the merits of the federal law that allows dumping 50 miles from shore.
“If people are concerned about this, what they need to do is address the law itself that makes it legal,” she said. “Maybe it’s not an appropriate law.”
Further, Miller said, she wonders if the military should begin to keep more detailed records of which branches receive which supplies.
“Suppose you had a recall?” Miller asked. “Suppose the atropine injectors blew up and (the manufacturer) had to get them all back? How is it that they couldn’t track down where it all went? We’ve always been stymied right there at that military depot in Tracy, Calif. Something needs to change.”
Wicklund, the Navy spokesman, said records now show bulk shipments, not lot numbers. Presumably, if anything needed to be recalled, he speculated, the bulk shipments could be traced. Working backwards, however, from the discovery of a single item, is more difficult, he said. Could the military begin keeping track of shipments by lot number?
“I really don’t know,” Wicklund said. “It sounds like a very simple solution. I’m surprised nobody has ever thought of it before.”
Miller says the current challenge is to take investigations of medical waste “that step further and be able to show that, one, it was a particular ship and, two, it was dumped illegally.” When trash travels on the tides, she said, “You either have to assume that it’s being dumped illegally and we can’t prove it or that it’s being dumped legally and somehow it’s making its way to a beach.”
Either way, Miller said, the recent rash of discoveries is a grim reminder: “Somehow our beaches are not being protected.”
Times staff writer Nora Zamichow contributed to this article.