1 bag of trash, 10 staff, 136 pages

Documents show Eastern Health’s efforts to manage medical waste issue

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on July 31, 2014
A bag of medical waste was sitting in the middle of Prince Philip Drive Thursday around lunchtime. The Telegram removed the bag from the road and called Eastern Health. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram

Ten government employees were involved in managing the media response when a bag of medical waste wound up on Prince Philip Drive, and a Telegram reporter found it.

In response to Telegram inquiries about how the bag of garbage ended up there, Eastern Health stonewalled, refusing to answer questions.

But documents obtained through access to information show that it was a hot topic behind the scenes — a request for one employee’s emails about the bag of trash turned up 136 pages of documents.

Eastern Health vice-president George Butt was involved in crafting the media response. Butt edited a prepared statement to the media to eliminate the term “medical waste” when describing the bag of refuse that came from the women’s health area of the Health Sciences Centre.

“I just took out the word ‘medical,’” Butt wrote in an email to media relations manager Jackie O’Brien.

“Waste is either biomedical waste or just plain garbage. There’s no medical waste.”

Despite repeated Telegram inquiries, Eastern Health officials wouldn’t do interviews, but in written statements O’Brien insisted the bag of trash contained nothing but regular trash, with no bio-medical waste.

However, after Eastern Health retrieved the garbage from The Telegram and examined it, questions were raised internally about that assessment.

“Appears to have some tissue in it with possible blood on it, but would need Maria (regional waste management co-ordinator) to confirm if it is biomedical or standard as the CCME guidelines are a little grey on that part,” Joe Dunford, regional director of infrastructure support, wrote. (CCME refers to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.)

“If I understand correctly, we can no longer say that it’s not biomedical,” Lynette Oates, director of corporate communications, wrote in a subsequent email.

The following day, O’Brien wrote in a statement to The Telegram, “This was regular garbage that was on its way to the landfill that did not contain bio-medical materials or any personal information.”

In an interview this week, Dunford said that it’s not in the email chain, but Oates misunderstood the definition of medical waste, and she was corrected.

Dunford explained the distinction.

“Just blood-soaked, that wouldn’t be considered biomedical,” he said.

“Whereas if you have very fluid blood, that would be different. That would be biomedical.”

In fact, even vials of blood wouldn’t necessarily be biomedical waste, Dunford said, based on whether they’ve been properly treated before they’re disposed of.

Dunford said protocols haven’t been changed since June, and Eastern Health doesn’t really know how its medical waste ended up on one of the city’s busiest roads.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Back in 2012, a CBC reporter found several bags of garbage on the same stretch of road — one of those bags had vials of blood, urine samples and identifying patient information.

Dunford said that back then, Eastern Health changed its waste disposal protocols with its contractor, Newfound Disposal.

Even though the same problem happened again, Dunford said they’re not looking at making any changes.

“We’re happy with the way it currently is,” he said.

“If things should change, I’m sure we would review the contract at that time.”



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