Beach lovers who missed out on ocean swimming last year because of medical waste and other forms of pollution in the water and on the shore can look forward to a much safer summer this year, according to scientists at New York University Medical Center.
"New tracking systems for the disposal of medical waste will make beaches much safer this year," said Dr. Philip Tierno, associate professor of microbiology. "People can increase their personal safety at the beach by taking some simple precautions, and they should also dispose of any medical waste generated at home in a safe manner."An article in an upcoming issue of the center's Health Letter states that following last year's closing of beaches across the country, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency started a pilot tracking system requiring medical offices and hospitals to file forms when they dispose of waste.
In addition, some states require that containers of dumped waste have an attached plastic floater identifying the hospital or office where it originated. "These procedures should be strong deterrents, since the penalties for dumping wastes can be severe," Tierno noted.
To kill any microorganisms that may infect people who come in contact with medical waste, most such matter is autoclaved - put into steam under pressure - before it is incinerated or dumped in a landfill. The process is expensive, and in some cases beaches are thought to have been used for illegal dumping. Beaches have also been sites where substance abusers have discarded used hypodermic needles.
"Because city and state health departments are now more carefully monitoring the water and sand at beaches, bathers need not hesitate to swim at any beach designated as safe," said Dr. Lily Young, research associate professor of environmental medicine and microbiology. It is a routinely good practice, she advised, for people to wear shoes when walking in the sand and not to go in the water if they have an open cut anywhere on their body.
Tierno offered simple guidelines for disposing of home medical wastes. "Flush very small items, such as bandages and cotton balls used to clean a wound, down the toilet, instead of placing them in a garbage bag. Waste thrown away rather than flushed is usually buried in a landfill, and rain can carry microbes into the water supply."