Laboratory waste spills out of bounds

By Daniel Gilbert

An investigation conducted by the Maroon from April 26 to 29 found quantities of discarded lab waste, including potentially infectious waste, outside several research facilities on campus. In selected cases, waste conditions violated University and Illinois policy regarding disposal of hazardous material.

A confetti of micro-pipettes tips, test tubes, and vials—capped and uncapped, some containing as yet unidentified liquids—lay strewn on the grass median between the Kovler Viral Oncology Lab and the Cummings Life Science Center on April 26. Additionally, veritable nests of such material were found by the dumpster area outside Cummings, along with a Petri dish, a discarded latex glove, and shards of broken laboratory glassware.

During the next few days, similar material was found by the dumpsters outside the Biological Sciences Learning Center (BSLC) and at the loading dock by the Anatomy Building, where one capped hypodermic needle was also identified. The needle, culture dish, and broken glassware constitute violations of the University and state policy for disposal of potentially infectious waste (PIW).

Section 2.7 of the University’s Safety Manual for Biological Safety Programs defines PIW as sharps, unused sharps, and stock cultures and agents. With regard to sharps—which include hypodermic needles, Pasteur pipettes, and broken and unbroken glassware—the policy states that they “shall be placed in a sharps container identified with the words ‘Biohazard/Sharps’ and display the biohazard symbol. Once the sharps container is full, it shall be closed and placed inside a red reusable container.”

The policy also states that all PIW generated at University facilities must be in keeping with regulations promulgated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). The IEPA mandates that PIW be placed in containers that are “rigid, leak-resistant of sufficient strength to prevent tearing or bursting under normal conditions of use and handling, and sealed to prevent leakage during transport.” In documented cases around the University, these conditions have not been met.

University administrators have responded swiftly to the situation. On May 3 the Maroon alerted Steve Beaudoin, director of the Offices of Safety and Environmental Affairs, producing photographs of the offending waste. Beaudoin requested to accompany Maroon staff to the various sites on May 4, and personally retrieved much of the PIW.

“Historically, things like this creep up once in a while,” said Beaudoin, who has occupied his position at the University since October 1992. “But we’ve never seen anything to this extent in the past. Mostly we’d find items that you’d find in dumpsters—pipette covers, vials, etc.” He called the current state of PIW disposal “unacceptable behavior that has to be resolved immediately.”

Beaudoin emphasized that all the waste outside the dumpster had been autoclaved—a process of sterilizing materials through extreme heat and pressure—and did not pose a health risk, with the exception of the needle.

Beaudoin explained that there are two distinct “waste streams” into which hazardous and non-hazardous material are disposed. Presuming that protocol is correctly followed, all PIW is autoclaved before it exits a lab and should not pose a health risk even if found outside the appropriate containers. Beaudoin was at a loss, however, to explain the presence of a needle. “Sharps like these should never be allowed to get out into the open,” he said. Whether or not the waste has been exposed to hazardous material, Beaudoin is not taking any chances. He said that the material collected will be sent to a lab for analysis.

Following his initial pickup, Beaudoin notified Judd Johnson, director of Operations for the Biological Sciences Division, and Gerry Curtis, building manager for Cummings and Kovler. Beaudoin instructed Johnson and Curtis, in an e-mail, to remind their tenants to dispose of the hazardous materials properly, and to specifically address the improper disposal of the needle; both assured that they would.

Curtis said that in the three years he has worked at the University, he has never seen a biohazard in the open. “Occasionally we receive reports of regular waste, like popcorn wrappers, blowing out of the dumpsters, but nothing hazardous,” he said. Johnson said he was aware of trash “making its way across the alley” adjacent to the BSLC, and that the University has responded with larger dumpsters and a compacter to accommodate the refuse.

Johnson speculated that the lab material ended up on the ground during waste management pick-ups. “Bags may be tearing as they go into the dumpster, and stuff may fall out when they are loaded into the truck,” he said. To resolve this, Johnson has asked his staff to police the dumpster areas with greater vigilance.

A homeowner who lives directly across from the dumpsters outside the BSLC said that waste blowing into his yard has been a “fairly constant problem” since he and his family moved in two years ago. The homeowner, who wished to remain anonymous, said he has found plastic wrappers for pipettes and needles, as well as other debris, prompting him to complain to the University. He was particularly concerned about the needle wrappers. “I don’t know what has been in them, and I don’t want this stuff in my yard when I have two small children running around,” he said.

While the homeowner said that the University’s response has been “pretty good,” he noted that the problem tends to revert after initial improvement. “It comes and goes in spurts,” he said, “but it does seem to have lessened a little bit in the last two to three weeks.” The homeowner has noticed that the dumpster lids outside the BSLC “don’t work very well,” and that when a dumpster is overstuffed and the wind is strong, waste tends to blow into his yard.

Refuse collection on the academic portion of the campus is managed by the University Facilities Services, according to Bob Tiberg, director of maintenance and operations for Facilities Services. Tiberg said that refuse is generally removed from interior trash rooms to dumpsters by ABM, the custodial workforce.

Tiberg noted that the contract for managing waste is “competitively bid,” and the University has contracted Waste Management for the past five years. The Biological Sciences Division manages a separate contract to dispose of medical waste, according to Tiberg.

The custodial crew is trained not to leave garbage on the street, Tiberg said, adding that “some instruction” had been given to the crew in this regard. He declined to be more specific, citing “peripheral issues” that he could not discuss. “If you are worried about carelessness, I can tell you that there has been some discussion,” he said.

Tiberg downplayed the finding of PIW as an “episodic event,” and emphasized that no one would lose his or her job as a consequence. “I don’t think that Waste Management or ABM willfully threw this stuff on the deck,” he said.

Spot-checks by the Maroon during the past week have revealed a dramatic improvement in the state of waste disposal. Only scattered micro-pipettes may be found at the problem sites, and nothing qualifying as PIW has been identified in the two weeks following the initial investigation. Beaudoin reported on May 6 that he found a pipette tip behind the BSLC, and a small vial by the dumpster at Cummings, and disposed of these items. Since then, Beaudoin has gone out three times in the last week, and said that he has not found anything.

—with reporting by John Scott-Railton