When regulations controlling the disposal of infectious medical waste are finally approved in Utah, they will largely be a result of the perseverance of a Salt Lake legislator.Although the Legislature's Health Interim Committee debated the subject in the summer of 1987, it took no action.
"The committee at the time chose not to do anything because they did not put it at a higher priority than hazardous waste," said Kenneth Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health.
But Rep. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, wasn't about to give up on the issue.
Shortly after the interim committee meeting, Newsweek Magazine highlighted the dangers of medical waste - showing how children in Ohio found syringes in a dumpster and spent an afternoon playing doctor by jabbing each other in the arm. (A similar incident occurred in Kearns last week.)
"That really concerned me, because I know there are a number of doctors who dispose of hazardous waste in dumpsters," Davis said. He contacted doctors, nurses and hospital associations - all who supported a bill that would establish safety requirements for disposal of medical waste.
Davis' bill would have required the state's Solid and Hazardous Waste Committee to enact rules concerning infectious waste. The rule-making process, with its public notices and hearings, was estimated to cost $35,000.
The House Rules Committee wouldn't pass a bill with that kind of price tag, he said. So he softened the bill.
The new measure dropped the $35,000 appropriation and said the committee "may," rather than "shall," promulgate the rules. This version passed both houses unanimously, was signed by Gov. Norm Bangerter, and went into effect this past July 1.
"To me, public health should be worth $35,000," Davis said. "But I felt it was more important to get something going in this area than to wait until the money was available. Let's get it on the books."
The committee is allowed to enact rules relating to the collection, transportation, processing, treatment, storage and disposal of infectious waste. This is defined as a solid or liquid waste reasonably expected to contain pathogens of sufficient virulence and quantity that an exposed person might contract disease.
The rules will apply to hospitals, clinics,
edical offices, veterinarian offices, mortuaries and other facilities. "It covers wherever there could be infectious deposits, or waste," he said.
A complicating factor is that under Utah law, no state regulation can be imposed that is more stringent than its federal counterpart, without hearings and a showing of good cause. Since there are no federal regulations on infectious wastes as of yet, that means any regulations may be in for an uphill battle.
Davis said one factor in the rules' favor, however, is that the medical community want to see them enacted. "I believe they want to see some standards too," he said.
Under Davis' bill, the Solid and Hazardous Waste Committee is supposed to devise rules. "The only problem is, they didn't give us any money to do it," Alkema said.
"We see it as a bigger issue that needs to fit in with solid waste. Solid waste in Utah is not being managed very well."
Ironically as the debate on waste goes on in Utah, two sixth-grade girls accidentally jabbed themselves when they tried to pick up hypodermic needles dumped on an elementary school playground in Kearns.
The incident last week has raised fear that they may have been exposed to AIDS.
Among the approximately 14 needles and syringes dumped at South Kearns Elementary School, 4430 W. 5570 South, were cotton swabs and an empty bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is used to disinfect skin when an injection is given.
In three months the girls will be tested to see if they have been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS, which is sometimes spread by unclean drug needles. It takes that long for the virus to show up.