Autoclaving Biohazardous Material

The Environmental Protection Agency is not directly involved in dealing with the disposal of biohazardous material. In other words, the EPA does not establish standards relating to what needs to be done to eliminate biohazardous materials.

What the EPA does have province over is the discharge of hazardous materials into the environment. As a result of this legal charge to the agency, the EPA is involved in regulating the manner in which residue is or is not discharged into the environment as a result of the process utilized to dispose of biohazardous materials.

Upon until fairly recently, the primary means through which biohazardous material was disposed was incineration. Indeed, prior to 1997, 90 percent of all biohazardous waste was incinerated. In 1997, the EPA first promulgated what are known as the Hospital Medical Waste Incinerator standards. With the implementation of these standards, a shift from incineration as the primary means of disposing of biohazardous waste has occurred.

Alternatives to Incineration of Biohazardous Waste

There are a number of other technologies that are used to dispose of biohazardous waste. These include:

  • Thermal treatments, including microwave technologies
  • Electropyrolyis
  • Chemical mechanical systems
  • Autoclaving

In recent years, autoclaving has become a more widely used means of disposing of biohazardous material. Understanding its growing use, understanding the basics of autoclaving in relation to the disposal of biohazardous materials can be helpful.

What is an Autoclave?

An autoclave is a specializes type of equipment that delivers steam generated heat, under pressure. This is delivered in a sealed chamber. The process of delivering steam heat in this fashion is called autoclaving. The end result of the process is to decontaminate or sterilize whatever has been placed into an autoclave. This includes biohazardous materials.

What is Biohazardous Waste?

The University of California has developed a succinct definition of biohazardous waste:

Biohazardous waste is potentially infectious waste. This includes blood, body fluids, and other biological material that is waste contaminated with potentially infectious agents. These agents are materials that are deemed a danger to the public and the environment.

Benefits of Autoclaving Biohazardous Waste

A primary benefit associated with utilizing an autoclave to address contaminated biomedical waste is the fact that it sharply reduces contaminants being released into the environment. Incineration results in biological waste being reduced to ash. While the ash is significantly less dangerous to the environment, it nonetheless does contain material that potentially is harmful to the environment.

Post incineration ash can enter into the environment in three different ways:

  • Soil
  • Air
  • Water.

With autoclaving, there is not residual ash. There are materials left behind, but these things present even less of a risk to the environment than is the residue from incineration.

In addition, the incineration process necessarily resulted in the discharge of at least some smoke into the environment. As is the case with any type of smoke discharge, this is not healthy and over time does have a negative impact on environmental quality.

Another major benefit of autoclaving is found in the fact that it can be done on site. With autoclaving, biohazardous waste need not be transmitted from one location to another. In addition, autoclaves come in a variety of sizes to meet the specific biohazard elimination needs of a particular business, including hospital, medical clinic, or certain biohazardous waste remediation services.

Eliminating transport in and of itself has some solid benefits which include:

  • Eliminates the risk of an accidental release of biohazardous material during transport
  • Reduces the number of people required to handle the biohazardous material
  • Lessens the costs associated with the elimination of biohazardous material.
  • Reduces the potential exposure of the general public to biohazardous material

In addition, an autoclave is relatively easy to operate. A person can be trained on the proper, effective operation of an autoclave in little time.

With that said, utilizing an autoclave to eliminate biohazardous material does require the use of personal protective equipment that includes:

  • Gloves
  • Masks
  • Goggles
  • Apron, smock, or uniform

With that said, if a biohazard remediation service elects to make use of an autoclave in remediating biological waste material, the company needs to have proper authorization or certification from the state of California. This is an additional requirement beyond the company having to register as a biohazard remediation service with the California Department of Public Health.