Stories of syringes being discarded in the streets and parks have been a popular urban legend for years. But for the custodial staff of a large, public college like Cosumnes River College, improperly disposed of sharps are a very real concern.
Sharp waste is defined by Campus Nurse Michelle Barkley as any item that comes in contact with bodily fluids and can potentially puncture skin. Because of their nature, all sharps are potentially infectious and extremely dangerous to anyone who comes in contact with them.
Both Barkley and Custodial Supervisor Tony Cartright expressed concern about whether or not students are aware of what constitutes sharp waste.
“Generally speaking, it has been my experience that the student population does not fully understand what qualifies as a ‘sharp waste,’” Cartright said.
“Although most students would use caution when crossing the path of items such as syringes, blades or broken glass, I’m not sure they wholly comprehend the potential for harm injuries from biohazard waste can pose, should they come in contact with it.”
In 2008, the California Health and Safety Code made disposing of sharp medical waste in trash or recycling illegal. Both Sacramento and Elk Grove have several provisions in place to monitor and ensure safe disposal of these hazardous items in private homes and public institutions.
Two common items that are considered as sharp waste are blood glucose strips and lancets, which are used several times a day by people who have type one or type two diabetes, as well as by those who are prediabetic.
Because they not only contain blood, but a tiny needle as well, it is incredibly important to dispose of test strips and lancets in the same safe sharps containers used for their more intimidating, and conspicuous, cousins: syringes.
“Some people may just recap and bring [test strips] home, or do that, and then dispose of it that way. But, for the most part, just dumping it in any trash can, by all means, is a hazard,” said Barkley. “Especially to other people who come upon it, [like] our custodial staff.”
There are many reasons that a person would need to use sharps for medical purposes, but all patients are required to have an agreement worked out with their primary care physicians as to how to properly dispose of their instruments.
“Some students may be going under temporary care for injections of steroids, or some other things,” said Barkley, “but, once again, the pharmacy [where] they got the prescribed medication and the doctors, they would have something worked out.”
But according to a 2013 article in Diabetes Health, “Big Changes Looming in Sharps Disposal Regs” by Tom Erickson, “[s]urveys indicate that less than [five] percent of the more than [three] billion sharps devices sold in the United States annually are disposed of in some type of closed container. Of the remaining 95 percent, most are deposited -unprotected- into the household trash.”
Cartright said that the training his staff goes through to know how to respond to the presence of sharp waste is thorough.
However, if a student happens to come into contact with improperly disposed of sharp waste, Cartright advises to treat it as a potential biohazard. He says to avoid the items, warn others of the danger and report it to either Administrative Services or a staff member immediately.
For the safety of and in respect to CRC’s custodial staff, it’s important that students understand how to properly dispose of their sharp waste and take the responsibility seriously.
“Sometimes it’s just easier to just [throw them away],” Barkely said.“But for custodians, it’s inherent in their job description now to be mindful that there could be [sharps].”
Although she said that students should inform her of their needs at the start of the semester, Barkley wants students to know that the sharps disposal box in Health Services is available to anyone who needs it. It is currently the only spot on campus for students or staff to safely deposit sharp waste.
The Health Services’ hours are Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.