You’ve probably seen grey lockboxes with biohazard stickers mounted to walls in pharmacies and libraries and wondered what they are. These containers have been implemented in public institutions to contain sharps waste, a dangerous kind of medical refuse. Referred to colloquially as “sharps” in the health care industry, this category of infectious waste includes anything that can pierce the skin. Needles, knives, scalpels, broken glass, lancets and razors are included under this definition. As are syringes, which tend to feature in the most publicized examples of sharps mismanagement. For instance, CBS News reported that officials in San Francisco collected 13,000 used syringes off the streets in March 2017. While these numbers were certainly amplified by the opioid crisis, this extreme example illustrates why everyone must take precautions to ensure that discarded needles are properly disposed of. Moreover, it underscores the fact that this is a ubiquitous and contemporary issue in the US. What makes sharps so dangerous is that they’re almost always contaminated with someone else’s body fluids. When the instrument pierces another person’s skin, it can easily transmit bloodborne pathogens like HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. To suppress the spread of disease, you’ll need to know how to dispose of sharps properly.
Allowing a trained medical professional to handle sharps is ideal. But some situations may require you to dispose of them yourself. If you need to pick one up off the ground, be sure you’re wearing thick, puncture resistant gloves and that you’re walking slowly. Point the tip away from your body and from others, and dispose of the item in a secure sharps container as quickly as possible. Regulated by the FDA, these containers are distinct for their red, puncture proof exterior and clear top. They are also marked by the internationally recognized biohazard symbol, which looks like three rings pinned together concentrically by a nail. You will find these at a number of disposal sites in your state. They include hospitals, some libraries, pharmacies, universities, police stations, health departments, fire stations and doctor’s offices. Wall mounted sharps containers come in red and grey, and look like lockboxes. If you are unsure, an official collection box will always carry the biohazard symbol.
Often times you’ll need to transport the item to one of these disposal sites. Placing sharps in a puncture proof, leak proof container is required to avoid an accident. While the vessel can be something mundane, like a bleach container, be sure to mark it as hazardous for additional safety. Although this process is inconvenient, the law mandates that you dispose of sharps at a collection site. So make sure you never throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet. Doing so puts trash collectors, landfill operators, sewage workers, children and other household members at risk. Do not place sharps in a container that is overflowing, and never try to force them inside. If you are stuck with a sharp, wash the wound with soap and water, and seek immediate medical attention.