Regulators eye hazardous waste disposal practices of DVMs

Increased inspections loom for veterinary medicine

October 16, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

A nationwide attack on lax pharmaceutical disposal methods has put a spotlight on veterinary medicine, leading to stiff fines in states like Massachusetts and, most recently, discussions between regulators and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA).

At press time, CVMA leaders and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) were in talks to identify hazardous wastes generated by veterinary medicine and the safest means for disposing of them. The meetings are meant to educate DVMs about a looming compliance crackdown that could cost Colorado practice owners up to $15,000 a day, per infraction.

Similar efforts also are being seen in Massachusetts, where veterinary leaders seek clarification on laws behind a rash of regulatory inspections that already have led to citations and fines for veterinarians. 

Under the microscope

The attention on hazardous waste, especially pharmaceutical contaminants, has snowballed since last spring, when reports surfaced that trace amounts of drugs were found in the drinking water supplies of major cities — a discovery amplified by the federal government’s reprimand of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to alert the public about the pollutants. Despite EPA’s regulatory authority over chemicals in drinking water that could pose a risk to human health and ecosystems, the agency previously did not to test for most pharmaceuticals, lawmakers insist.

That’s now changing. 

In August, officials announced EPA was preparing to conduct a detailed study of the disposal methods used by hospitals, long-term care facilities and veterinary practices that discard medications. The agency also commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to provide scientific advice on the potential risk to human health from low levels of pharmaceutical residues in drinking water.

The increased attention has tricked down to agencies like the CDPHE, which acts on behalf of EPA and is focusing on hazardous waste disposal in Colorado’s human- and veterinary-medical practices.

“There’s public concern about pharmaceuticals leaching in to our water system,” says Kathryn Stewart, the department’s Generator Assistance Program coordinator. “It’s our job to go out and perform inspections. We are the EPA, so to speak, for the state.”

Flushing out the issue

That eventually will translate to CDPHE scrutiny of veterinary practices, with inspections delayed so CVMA authorities can educate its members about proper disposal methods for hazardous waste and identify the products that contain dangerous materials.

“We’re talking everything from cleaning solutions to certain chemotherapy drugs, the vials they come in, syringes, packaging and more,” says Ralph Johnson, CVMA executive director. “Because we’re the waste generators, it’s our job to ID the scope of the problem. We’re working with distributors to get a handle on what exactly is coming in to veterinary practices. We’re assessing the dangers that these products pose to the environment and human health by cross-referencing MSDA (material safety data sheets) data.” 

The result, Johnson says, will be the release of best practices guidelines designed to stave off disposal violations.

That will help veterinarians adhere to the “cradle-to-grave” documentation CDPHE requires of generators, which puts the onus on users to be able to track hazardous materials like barium and mercury from generation to disposal, Stewart says. In the meantime, veterinarians are invited to contact CDPHE’s Generator Assistance Program for guidance on handling medical waste and how to prevent environmental contamination.

“If a group of businesses understands how to be compliance with the law, its most likely to do it,” she says. “Veterinarians first need to know what products amount to hazardous waste. That’s important because pharmaceuticals in the environment are becoming a huge issue nationally, not just in this state.”

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