November 24, 2012

Advocates seek law changes to improve hypodermic needle disposal safety

Improperly trashed needles present a hazard to family members and the public

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

When people who self-inject insulin or other medication in their homes, the needles they throw in the trash sometimes jab family members and the workers handling their garbage, leading to infection, tetanus and the transmission of disease.

click image to enlarge

Don Simoneau, who is diabetic, has for five years made an effort to put into place proper disposal practices for medical syringes. Simoneau is an advocate for patients to use approved containers, at right, versus placing needles in plastic household containers.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Medical facilities have legally mandated disposal requirements for biohazardous waste, including needles, but those same needles are often simply tossed in the trash by the estimated 40,000 Mainers who use millions of needles at home a year.

The lawmaker who sponsored a state bill that would have required manufacturers to establish a program addressing the issue said the bill died in January after needle manufacturers lobbied against it.

Instead, the state has launched a public education campaign that targets consumer behavior. Public safety advocates like Don Simoneau, a 60-year-old veteran from Fayette, say the education campaign will help but still falls short of what is needed to prevent waste management workers and others from getting stabbed.

On Tuesday, Simoneau, who has been diabetic for 12 years, wrote a letter to state legislators on the Environment and Natural Resources committee.

"Needles don't belong in the household trash, nor does any medical waste," he wrote. "How many dirty needle sticks will it take to change the law? It shouldn't take any. This is a public health concern."

Workers at risk

Tom Erickson, chief executive officer of UltiMed, a Minnesota-based company that manufactures medical sharps, has lobbied on behalf of stricter laws in several states.

Unlike some companies in the industry, UltiMed is in favor of making manufacturers responsible for the hazards created by their products.

Family members who handle the trash are one group at risk of being stabbed by a wayward needle, but Erickson said the biggest losers in the battle over needle sharps are those in the waste management industry.

"Waste management companies have been the largest proponents of keeping these things out of the trash stream," Erickson said. "They have literally tens of millions of dollars every year in claims from employees."

While the vast majority of those who are stuck with needles don't contract any type of infectious disease, every incident requires preventive treatment in a hospital setting, which Erickson said amounts to about $3,000 per injury.

"Every time you get stuck, it's like getting bit by a bat or a skunk," he said. "You have to go through the precautions even though it might not have rabies."

Mickey Wing, owner of Central Maine Disposal in Fairfield, said he knows of people in the industry who have had to go to the hospital for treatment after being stuck with a needle.

"We're handling bags all the time," Wing said. "When they're doing curbside pickup, they grab the bags and put them in the back of the truck. They're all aware of the possibility of being stuck."

Wing said employees are also at risk when they perform maintenance and clean the truck. Cracks and seams in the compactor areas accumulate small items, including grit, glass and needles.

"The danger is spreading disease," said Wing.

Wing said the hazard is unnecessary.

"I don't think they should be in the waste stream at all," Wing said. "My feeling is they should be handled like medical waste. They should be put in a sharps container and there should be a depot or something, maybe at the pharmacy where they purchased the needles."

Disposal alternatives

Some needle users put their sharps in specially designed containers that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Others put them in household laundry detergent bottles or other hard plastic containers.

Erickson said that approved containers are better than detergent bottles because they are harder to break.

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