WHAT ARE MEDICAL SHARPS?
“Sharps” are a mix bag description we use when talking about our slicing, dicing, and piercing medical instruments. By 'sharps' doctors mean disposable syringes, sutures, scissors, spent ampules or surgical blades - the dirty five S’s.
Hospitals are not unique in generating sharps. Medical clinics out in the periphery such as mine, and even homes can generate sharps, for example, a diabetic patient giving themselves insulin generates sharps too ie the spent insulin needles.
The sharpness of sharps which makes them so useful during their clinical lives is also what makes them a real headache to dispose of later. Sharps cut their way out of any plastic or paper bag faster than a Houdini escape without any conscious assistance. This escape hazard potentially exposes handlers and garbage collectors to biological hazards so we have to employ a different strategy than tossing them into the municipal garbage to dump them safely.
What are Sharps Containers?
The universal solution to protect sharps waste handlers presently is getting sharps users to dispose of their medical paraphernalia into robust plastic cages known colloquially as “sharps containers”. These biohazard miniature crates are still made of plastic but much thicker and thereby tougher than bags and sealed. Trying to stab a syringe through one of these it will likely yield and bend it before penetrating the tough shell. As a further safeguard, the top of the containers have unidirectional entrances that act like one way valves. Stuff goes in; stuff stays in. The units are meant for one time use ie. once full with sharps they are discarded by specialized carriers.
What Happens to Sharps Waste?
This varies by location, but in all places I’ve worked so far, sharps containers are pooled, then taken away to specialized waste disposal units (typically at a hospital), where they are sterilized via an autoclave (high heat steam exposure) before moving on to a landfill.
We pay little thought to how important sharps are or how much we generate. Without sharps there could be no vaccinations, no surgery, and no ER stitches. During flu season alone, millions of hypodermic needles are consumed in public health initiatives to immunize everyone. Without sharps, we'd be back in the Dark Ages trying to dodge pestilence.