Medical waste polluting mail
WASHINGTON -- Many years after medical waste washed ashore and closed beaches along the East Coast, a similar hazard is causing concern in a far more inland locale: U.S. postal mailrooms.
Complaints are surfacing that postal workers have been injured handling medical-waste materials that are increasingly being transported via the U.S. mails.
The problem has been especially acute on the East Coast, where mail handlers at three post offices have been complaining for years that hazardous materials, including containers holding potentially contaminated blood, urine and hypodermic needles, are being shipped through their facilities.
Mail handlers reported just last week that a New Jersey postal worker was injured picking up an unmarked package containing used hypodermic needles, according to Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who testified yesterday before a House Post Office and Civil Service panel.
The House postal personnel and modernization subcommittee had called the hearing to examine workplace safety at the nation's post offices in general, and complaints of medical-waste injuries in particular.
"Many of the accidents appear directly attributable to the current policy, which allows medical waste generators to ship waste via fourth-class bulk rate mail, a practice that may indeed be inherently dangerous," said Pallone.
Pallone said hundreds of postal workers handle medical waste mailed at bulk rate but they are not the only ones who would be endangered should a package break.
"Because the waste is commingled with everyday letters and parcels in the regular mail stream, these too may be contaminated should a package containing waste rupture and leak," said Pallone.
Postal regulations have long permitted the mailing of disease-causing agents, biological specimens and other biological products, as long as they are properly packaged.
These rules were revised in 1989 specifically to address the needs of safely packaging specimens and other medical-waste items, including the mailing of glass and syringes.
Acknowledging the complaints about hazardous medical mail, Assistant Postmaster General Joel S. Trosch testified that current U.S. postal regulations meet or exceed the safe-packaging rules called for by the Public Health Service and the Department of Transportation.
"The Postal Service has strict requirements for the mailing of medical sharps, but they do not include registered mail and return receipt," said Trosch, who heads the employee relations division of the U.S. Postal Service.
Trosch said he has been in contact with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, whose office has been preparing recommendations to revise or expand medical-waste regulations -- including the mailing of so-called "medical sharps."
Reilly is expected to release the regulations later this year.
For a quicker fix, however, Pallone suggested at least having such materials sent via the registered mail system.
"Medical waste traveling all the way from California to New Jersey by registered mail would be handled by perhaps three or four postal workers, as opposed to the hundreds who would handle the package within the regular mail stream," he said.
This spring, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued two notices of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions to two New Jersey postal facilities, citing a variety of violations, including the lack of proper training for workers.
At Newark, investigators found that "employees who handled parcels which were soaked with body fluids from broken blood or urine samples were not trained in the universal precautions for prevention of blood-borne disease," according to Gerard F. Scannell, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
In addition, "All solid or liquid wastes to which the postal employees were exposed were not removed in a manner which would avoid a danger to employees' health," he said.
OSHA is determining whether an inspection should be made at a postal facility in Paterson, N.J., one of the three from which serious complaints arose from mail handlers.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees last week slammed the current U.S. employer-based health-care system, urging Congress instead to enact a Canadian-style national health insurance program.
Cutting through private insurance companies' administrative red-tape and eliminating their stacks of paperwork would save $67 billion, if the U.S. were to establish a system of government-run insurance, according to estimates.
Also testifying before the committee were officials of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, who released a study on the health-care system commissioned by the committee. The panel is considering wide-ranging reforms of the U.S. health-care system.