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Pharmaceuticals are an essential element in healthcare delivery, helping patients effectively recover from illness and better manage chronic conditions. A key component in safe pharmaceutical handling is proper waste management. This critical yet complex activity is governed by strict and sometimes confusing requirements.

The following sections address some most commonly asked questions about pharmaceutical waste management and offer suggestions on how to ensure a complete and compliant effort that preserves staff, patient and environmental safety.

What Is Pharmaceutical Waste?

Pharmaceutical waste is any leftover, unused or expired medication that is no longer needed or can no longer be used. It can be classified as either hazardous or non-hazardous depending on its chemical properties and its risk to humans and the environment. There are different requirements for disposing of hazardous versus non-hazardous pharmaceuticals.

What are the Risks of Improper Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

If an organization disposes of drugs incorrectly, dangerous chemicals can leach into the surrounding environment and contaminate groundwater, drinking water, plant life and so on. Eventually, this may cause health problems in the community. Improper disposal methods may include washing drugs down sinks, flushing them down toilets, throwing them away in the regular trash or comingling hazardous drug waste with non-hazardous drug waste.

Which Agencies Regulate Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) regulates hazardous waste pharmaceutical disposal. The law requires companies that use hazardous chemicals, including hazardous waste pharmaceuticals, to classify and dispose of them following prescribed criteria and procedures.

What Are the Different Hazardous Waste Generator Types?

The scope of EMA regulations is tied to the amount of hazardous waste an organization generates. A healthcare facility could be a very small quantity generator (VSQG), a small quantity generator (SQG) or a large quantity generator (LQG). Generator type is determined by the volume of non-acute and acute hazardous waste an organization generates.

What Are the Different Hazardous Waste Pharmaceutical Categories?

Pharmaceutical waste falls into one of three categories: P-list waste, U-list waste, and/or characteristic hazardous waste.

P-listed pharmaceutical waste is acutely hazardous and includes drugs such as warfarin and nicotine patches. Note that P-list drug packaging should be considered waste along with drug remnants. U-list waste includes many chemotherapy drugs.

Characteristic hazardous waste is waste that has not been specifically listed as hazardous on the P- or U-lists but still exhibits one or more of the four hazardous waste characteristics.

What Are the Four Types of Characteristic Hazardous Waste?

  • Ignitable. This type of waste is flammable, flashpoint is one factor in determining ignitability. Examples include alcohol-based cough syrups, and aerosol cans with flammable propellants.
  • Corrosive. This category includes acids, bases and is based on pH. A few examples are glutaraldehyde, and pharmaceuticals that are persevered in corrosive materials such as nitric acid.
  • Reactive. This type of waste negatively interacts with other chemicals, causing explosions or generating toxic gases or fumes. Unlike other kinds of waste, there aren’t defined testing procedures that organizations can use to determine the reactivity of a substance. Instead, they should refer to the Safety Data Sheet(SDS) associated with a drug to understand whether it falls into this category.
  • Toxic. Although there are many products that could be thought of as toxic, from a waste perspective, the EMA only designates certain chemicals as toxic if they are present in specific concentrations. To determine these concentrations, organizations can use a test known as the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP). Some of the chemicals that can be considered toxic are selenium, silver and mercury.

What Are the Training Requirements for Hazardous Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

All staff should be trained on the importance of proper pharmaceutical waste segregation, handling and disposal. In addition, personnel who prepare hazardous materials for transport must complete DOT hazardous materials training and be re-trained at least every three years, so they know how to:

  • Safely prepare hazardous waste for shipment
  • Select containers
  • Place hazardous materials into containers
  • Mark or label containers
  • Fill out or sign hazardous waste manifests
  • Load hazardous waste onto vehicles
  • Specify the placard required on the transport vehicle  

Training should be easy to complete and accessible in a variety of forms, including web-based options as well as onsite programs that share real-world examples.

How Do You Dispose of Old and Unused Medications?

How you dispose of leftover medications depends on what type of generator you are. Hazardous waste pharmaceuticals generated from healthcare organizations, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices or pharmacies are regulated. Some medication can be categorized as regulated medical waste and others as non-hazardous.

While there are no regulations around consumer disposal, as stewards of the community, many organizations choose to participate in drug take back programs. Examples of these programs include providing customers with envelopes for secure disposal via mail or kiosks where people can drop off their medications. Solutions like these provide consumers with a safe, easy and anonymous way to dispose of leftover medication and keep it out of the environment and communities.

Looking for a Pharmaceutical Waste Management Program?

WASTiNNOVA can help improve the safety and reliability of your pharmaceutical waste management program. From compliance training to medication disposal, you can find a service to fit your unique needs.

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