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Stericycle Fine Heralds New Regulations For Pharma Waste Handling

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Several hundred facilities in Washington handle medical and pharmaceutical waste. It’s a process that can easily go wrong. An enforcement action this week is sparking a fresh look at the rules surrounding the industry.

The state department of Ecology has fined Stericycle $72,000 for repeated violations of federal waste regulations. K Seiler, who manages compliance and enforcement, says spot checks found the company’s facility in Morton was sterilizing solid materials. That took care of the germs in its infectious waste. But there were also residuals from pharmaceuticals.

Seiler says it turned out the hospital that sent materials to Stericycle had improperly mixed the two kinds of waste.    

“And this is not a facility that is permitted to take hazardous waste, it’s permitted to take those infectious wastes.”

Infectious waste comes from procedures with patients who have diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis C . Sterilization neutralizes the bodily fluids, but not the hazardous chemicals that are contained in many pharmaceutical drugs.  

The inspection revealing the error was in November. Seiler says it’s a case that’s leading to a more streamlined system of communication and enforcement with all kinds of facilities handling this waste.

“Pharmaceuticals is something that’s fairly ubiquitous --  at hospitals, veterinary clinics, multi-care facilities, etc. So we’re concerned about making sure that things that are regulated as hazardous gets to the right disposal area.”        

She says a new law passed the state legislature to ensure that the companies handling pharmaceutical waste know how and are able to dispose of it correctly.

Stericycle has 30 days to appeal or respond to the penalty.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.