Medical trash and papers found in downtown yards
Health Department officials, firefighters, police and a Washington County Hazmat team took charge of a block of downtown Berkeley Springs last Thursday, March 13, to remove pieces of medical waste and documents spread across six lots.
Health officials were alerted to the medical trash by a resident along North Washington Street around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. The woman had found trash of a medical nature in her yard and in two neighboring yards, said Lee Fowler, head of the Morgan County Health Department.
I have a good idea of the source, but I can't release that information yet, Fowler said Monday. He expects to issue a report about his investigation into the incident later in the week.
After Fowler was alerted to the medical waste, he contacted the medical office of Dr. Andrew Berens, which stands across the street from where the trash was spotted. Fowler also called War Memorial Hospital to inform them of the discovery.
Gauze, lancets, papers
An initial sweep of six properties by Fowler, Sanitarian Bruce Ullom and Health Department nurse Angel Bloom turned up two lancets, a broken and used razor blade, some gauze with small amounts of blood, papers with patient names and information, and other trash that appeared to have come from a medical facility.
By 10:30 a.m., Officer Richard Haynes of the Berkeley Springs Police Department was on the scene to tape off and patrol the block between Union and Kent Streets, Fowler said.
Staff from the Health Department knocked on doors to tell residents to keep out of their yards while Fowler called 911 and requested the help of a Hazardous Materials team to collect the waste.
It was not so much the quantity of the waste, but the wide area over which it was spread, Fowler said.
I felt it was necessary to have professional people who are specifically trained to do this, he said of the retrieval of the trash.
Health and emergency officials did two sweeps of the block to retrieve all the medical waste, Fowler said.
Early Thursday afternoon, the Washington County Hazmat team walked the entire area in protective gear, collecting anything determined to be an immediate hazard, Fowler said. Those items included anything pointed or sharp, like the lancets and bloody gauze. Their search took about 45 minutes.
A second survey, conducted by five members of the Health Department board with local fire and rescue personnel, took close to an hour. That sweep turned up multiple glass vials with residue of medicine, papers with personal medical information, more gauze and empty medicine boxes, Fowler said.
Most of the hazardous material was found in a lot left vacant by a house fire several years ago, and in the neighboring yard, Fowler said. Searches also revealed a large quantity of typical household trash, he said.
Once the medical trash was removed, Fowler's staff hung flyers around the block informing residents that medical waste was found in the area and they should pay attention when going into their yards.
The safety of household pets was a concern of Fowler's, as well. In talking with residents along the block, officials got no reports of injuries from contact with the waste, Fowler said.
Medical waste from any facility should be disposed of in specially-marked red bags that are removed by medical waste companies, Fowler said.
Needles, lancets and any sharp disposable medical materials are normally thrown away into hard plastic boxes called sharps containers.
Those things are never picked up by a regular waste company, Fowler said.
We never have red bags or sharps outside the building. The company picks it up inside during our business hours, Fowler said.
Medical records, or documents containing personal medical information with addresses and phone numbers, are supposed to be kept in locked files and completely shredded when disposed of.
That's the law, Fowler said.
Ideally, the stuff we're talking about should never have been placed in household trash, Fowler said of the medical material.
Act of vandalism
We're investigating this as an act of vandalism, said Fowler.
Someone's motive in dumping medical trash in a residential area could include a search for drugs, Fowler said, but he doesn't think he'll find out for sure unless someone witnessed the dumping. He said it's also unclear how long the medical items were laying out in the open.
My main concern here is to educate, not punish anyone involved, said Fowler.
As the head of the local Health Department, Fowler is prepared to train workers at local medical facilities how to dispose of waste properly.
I don't want the public to panic. I will do the best I can as Health Department administrator to make sure this doesn't happen again, Fowler said.
The Health Department will have to cover the costs of Washington County's Hazmat services, but Fowler didn't yet know how much that would be.