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Veterans Administration to Develop Comprehensive Waste Tracking System for Medical Centers in New England - Action Stems from EPA Enforcement in 2005

Release Date: 01/24/2007
Contact Information: David Deegan, (617) 918-1017

(Boston, Mass. – Jan. 24, 2007) – In a settlement with EPA, the U.S. Veterans Administration Healthcare System has committed to implement a comprehensive hazardous waste and chemicals management inventory system at all Veterans Administration (“VA") facilities in New England. The VA is developing the system to settle a 2005 EPA enforcement action for hazardous waste violations at the VA’s medical center in White River Junction, Vermont.

The system will incorporate hazardous waste pollution reduction measures into a comprehensive software system that tracks chemical purchase, use, storage and disposal. The hazardous waste management tracking system will be piloted in all VA hospitals in New England. If successful, the waste management system could be usefully applied to other VA hospitals and health centers, as well as for other private and public hospitals across the country.

Establishing the comprehensive waste management system will cost at least $500,000. Under the settlement, the VA will also pay a cash penalty of $49,748.

“Developing a reliable system for hospitals to track hazardous wastes can have big impacts across the country by helping hospital directors reduce use of hazardous chemicals and reduce pollution,” said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England regional office. "By ensuring healthcare facilities better manage their hazardous chemicals and waste, EPA is advancing protection for patients, for the environment and for the community."

Hospitals contribute to the presence of mercury, dioxin, and other persistent, bioaccumulative toxics (PBTs) in the environment. In 1998, hospitals were the fourth largest source of mercury discharged into the environment. Hospitals can generate a wide variety of hazardous waste, such as chemotherapy and antineoplastic chemicals, solvents, formaldehyde, photographic chemicals, radionuclides and waste anesthetic gases. In addition, hospitals produce two million tons of solid waste – fully one percent of the total municipal solid waste in the U.S.

Both nationwide and within New England, the VA has been the subject of repeated violations of environmental regulations. Relying on an outdated paper-based record keeping system is seen as a significant contributor to the VA’s difficulty complying with hazardous waste management requirements.

The 2005 EPA action involved the VA’s improper storage and handling of hazardous materials, including potentially explosive hazardous waste (ether and picric acid) which were stored in clinical laboratory and pathology areas, posing significant risks to patients and hospital staff. Following identification, the explosive material was safely removed from the medical center and detonated. The licensed disposal company estimated that the waste’s explosive power equaled several sticks of dynamite.

The comprehensive hazardous waste and chemicals management inventory system will include automatic chemical pre-purchase review; a chemical product storage inventory management system; implementation of source reduction and reuse strategies; and a hazardous waste inventory management and tracking system. Implementing the tracking software across VA’s New England facilities will then help to prevent pollution and potential exposure concerns for citizens across the region.

The new tracking methods are expected to help VA facilities substitute use of potentially hazardous products with less hazardous replacements, maintain accurate inventories of hazardous products and their location, and facilitate access to an electronic library of material safety data sheets (MSDS).

In New England, the VA employs 9,000 people at eight medical campuses – including eight hospitals and 37 community-based outpatient clinics. Nationwide, the VA is the second largest federal agency with a budget of more than $60 billion, employing approximately 230,000 people at hundreds of medical centers, clinics and benefits offices.

EPA New England has been working with the healthcare sector (including VA facilities) since late 1994. To date, EPA has joined with 164 New England healthcare facilities to reduce the generation of mercury and solid waste.

More information:

EPA’s hazardous waste enforcement program in New England (epa.gov/ne/enforcement/waste/index.html)

EPA’s Healthcare in New England info (epa.gov/ne/healthcare)

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