NHS waste backlog sees human body parts pile up

A waste disposal company is under investigation after it was found to have built up a backlog of hundreds of tonnes of medical waste, including human body parts.

NHS waste backlog sees human body parts pile up
Healthcare Environmental Group offers collection, recycling and disposal services for organisations producing a variety of medical, chemical and hazardous waste – including a large number of NHS hospitals across the UK. All Scottish NHS hospitals are serviced by the company. On Thursday (4 October), news emerged that the private contractor had allowed waste from NHS trusts to build up at six disposal sites, five in England and one in Scotland.

According to the Health Service Journal, which first reported the story, the waste included infectious liquids, amputated limbs and toxic waste from cancer treatment. One site held 350 tonnes of waste, five times its 70-tonne limit. While it has been affirmed that the waste was stored safely and there was no risk to the public, affected NHS trusts may have to temporarily store their own waste on site as part of a contingency plan for which the government has allocated an emergency fund of £1 million.

Read more: What’s the prognosis? Clinical waste management in the NHS

Leaked documents have revealed that the Environment Agency (EA) served Healthcare Environmental with 13 warning notices and two compliance notices in the last year for not incinerating the waste in a timely fashion. The company has blamed the delay on a "reduction in the UK's high-temperature incineration capacity", along with zero waste-to-landfill policies reducing the possible destinations for the waste.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is reportedly monitoring the Healthcare Environmental sites in Scotland, while an EA spokesperson said the company was in breach of its environmental permits at the five English sites, adding: "We are taking enforcement action against the operator, which includes clearance of the excess waste, and have launched a criminal investigation.

"We are supporting the government and the NHS to ensure there is no disruption to public services and for alternative plans to be put in place for hospitals affected to dispose of their waste safely."

Sara Gorton, Head of Health at public services trade union Unison, described the news as "simply horrific", saying it was "unlikely that such a distressing situation would have happened had the service remained in-house… Ethics and decent behaviour aside, it begs the question as to why services that are such a crucial part of the NHS are ever outsourced in the first place."

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