Riverside County, Calif., issues fines for improperly disposed medical waste
Three hospital systems in Riverside County have been fined this year for dumping unsterilized medical wastes such as blood-soaked bandages, bloody intravenous lines and human tissue into county landfills. Other hospitals may face similar waste-dumping allegations, county officials said.
The fines are part of a broader effort by the county to clamp down on illegal disposal of unsterilized medical wastes, which can spread diseases to people who use and work in landfills, county officials said.
In about the last two years, Riverside County hospitals have paid more than $500,000 in fines for illegal dumping of medical wastes.
The latest case involves Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, which in August agreed to pay $150,000 to settle its second medical waste dumping case in two years. It is believed to be the county's largest fine ever against a single hospital for illegal waste dumping.
Hospital spokeswoman Eva Saltonstall said Desert Regional has taken steps to prevent improper disposal in the future, including having workers pick through trash bins in search of errant medical wastes, she said.
"We take these matters extremely seriously," she added.
Officials say the county has begun looking more closely at what hospitals and others are dumping into landfills to catch improperly discarded waste.
"We're looking more, we're finding more," said Damian Meins, an assistant director of Riverside County's Department of Environmental Health.
Since January, the county has taken to court Corona Regional Medical Center, Hemet's Valley Health System and its three hospitals in Hemet, Menifee and Moreno Valley, as well as Desert Regional.
Altogether, the three have paid $337,862 to settle the waste-dumping allegations, without admitting guilt.
San Bernardino County environmental health officials said this week that they have not handled any cases involving illegal dumping of hospital medical waste in at least the past year.
In Riverside County, all three cases involved mistakes by people working in the hospitals, said Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Weissman. She said her office is investigating more cases involving hospital medical wastes, although she declined to elaborate.
"It doesn't take evil intent to make this mistake," she said.
Wastes must be sterilized before they can be left in a landfill, said Matthew Hickman, an administrator in Riverside County's Waste Management Department. Typically, such waste should be contained in red plastic biohazard bags, which can be easily set aside for sterilization.
But some items, such as recognizable body parts, pharmaceutical wastes and radioactive wastes, cannot be dumped in the landfill, he said.
Hypodermic needles must be solidified in resin or ground up before disposal.
County inspectors randomly check incoming loads for illegal wastes from hospitals, contractors and others, Hickman said.
In the past two years, he said, the county has nearly doubled, to seven, the number of inspectors. The additions were prompted by an increase in illegal waste disposal, including from hospitals, and the growth of out-of-county trash being dumped in county landfills, he said. In turn, the additional staff may be helping the county catch more illegal material before it gets buried, he said.
Last summer, Tenet Healthcare agreed to pay $200,000 to settle waste-dumping charges brought against both Desert Regional and John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio. Most of the illegally dumped waste was sent by the Indio hospital to a Coachella Valley landfill. But some bloody syringes and other medical waste traced back to Desert Regional were found dumped behind an abandoned Denny's restaurant in Cabazon.
Earlier this year, county inspectors twice found blood, tissue and other untreated medical waste from Desert Regional at the county's Edom Hill landfill in the Coachella Valley, Weissman said.
The hospital has gone to extreme lengths to prevent future problems, Weissman said. "From the minute this occurred, their focus was on 'How do we make sure this doesn't happen again.'"
Valley Health System, the Hemet-based public hospital district, also has had repeat problems with medical waste disposal. In 2002, the district's Hemet Valley Medical Center paid nearly $35,000 to settle dumping allegations involving operating room waste.
Last year, Valley Health System's hospitals in Hemet, Menifee and Moreno Valley were caught improperly disposing of medical wastes on four separate dates, according to Riverside County Superior Court records.
The hospital district agreed in January to pay $114,586 to settle the case.
District spokeswoman Karen Roberts said the hospitals now are sterilizing nearly all of their waste.
"If you don't do that, you risk an error. We don't want any more violations," Roberts said.
The hospital district also is ordering new equipment for all of its hospitals to sterilize waste, she said. Until the equipment arrives, the district has hired an outside firm to dispose of the waste.
Corona Regional Medical Center got in trouble for two instances in March and April 2003 when hospital wastes were improperly sent to a county landfill, according to court records.
John Calderone, Corona Regional's chief executive, said the problem arose after the hospital changed its waste-handling procedures. He said the hospital should have trained its staff better in the new procedures.
"It was a real screw-up on our part," he said.
When the hospital learned of the dumping, "the CFO (chief financial officer) got in a van with a bunch of people and retrieved it," Calderone said. The workers then picked through the garbage to pull out the medical wastes.
Corona Regional agreed to pay about $73,000 to settle the case.
Calderone said the staff was retrained. Since the mishap, "we have a clean record," he said.
OK AT LANDFILLS IF STERILIZED:
--Bandages or gauze soaked with liquid blood or caked with dry blood
--Visibly bloody intravenous tubes or bags
--Needles, if ground up or solidified in resin
--Linens saturated with blood
--Suction canisters if they cannot be emptied
--Recognizable body parts
Source: Riverside County Waste Management Department
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(c) 2004, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.