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The History of Medical Waste Disposal

garbage collection

DSNY archival photo: Department of Street Cleaning collection cart

Life Before Medical Waste Management: Unsanitary and Even Deadly

 
Imagine you could take a time machine back to, say, the late 1800s in New York City. You’re walking down the sidewalk and pass a dead horse lying on the cobblestone street. It’s the same dead horse that lay there yesterday…and the day before. Everywhere you turn there are piles of trash. Most other city folks have grown accustomed to the smell, but to a newcomer like you—accustomed as you are to proper sanitation—the mingling odors of manure, urine, dead animals and other wastes nauseates you. If you lived in this environment long enough, your chances of contracting a contagious and perhaps deadly disease were very high.
 
It’s tempting to look back through history and wish you were born into a “simpler time.” The fact is the health and sanitation laws and regulations on disposal of biohazardous waste that are in place today make our cities and towns much more pleasant (not to mention healthier) than in those halcyon days of yore.
 
Take sanitation workers. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how these men and women make our lives better just by virtue of doing their job. Yet the majority of Americans enjoy clean water and air. When you walk to work every morning you don’t have to tramp through dangerous human and animal waste clogging the streets and sidewalks and overflowing into the oceans and rivers.
 

Dawn of Public Health Reform

 
In the U.S. and England in the 19th century, there was a much different standard of sanitation than these countries enjoy today. That began to change in the mid to late 1800s. British sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick famously conducted research into the poor conditions of prisons and hospitals in England. His research precipitated the passage of the Public Health Act of 1848 and inspired reforms in the United States. U.S. Colonel George E. Waring, a cavalry officer in the Union army, helped to establish sanitary engineering as a profession, which boosted its presence in modern life.
 
Fellow Briton Joseph Lister was the first to connect modern germ theory with medical sanitation. The germ theory of disease linked the existence of microorganisms, or germs, to the onset of diseases. Humans acted as hosts for these microorganisms, and their growth and reproduction caused illness. In the 1870s Lister applied the germ theory to hospital-borne illnesses, with poor medical sanitation the cause.
 

Medical Sanitation Extends Human Life Expectancy in the Twentieth Century

 
According to the medical journal Modern Drug Discovery, modern sanitation efforts led to Americans enjoying longer lives.
 
Most medical historians believe that the sanitation movement, and its attendant improvements in urban health and food safety, contributed far more to the increase in Western life expectancy in the 20th century (primarily through the prevention of infectious diseases) than did much of modern medicine.
Holzbog horse drawn street cleaning cart

Holzbog horse drawn street cleaning cart

 
Indeed in the twentieth century waste technology began to improve by leaps and bounds, and stricter sanitation laws were introduced. The purpose of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 was to reduce waste and protect human and environmental health by introducing waste management technologies and standards designed to decrease pollution and promote better municipal waste disposal.
 
There were those who didn’t feel the SWDA went far enough. In the summer of 1988, medical waste washed up on five East Coast beaches. Congress responded by enacting the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. Regulations on how medical waste could be disposed of became more stringent—and as a result our environment is cleaner and our lives are healthier.
 
So the next time you see one of Cyntox’s medical waste professionals doing a pickup of your red bags and sharps containers, take a moment to reflect on what your work and home life would look life without the benefit of good biohazardous waste management!

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