Syringes in the Sea: Why Federal Regulation of Medical Waste is Long Overdue

58 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2006 Last revised: 15 Oct 2015

See all articles by Chryssa V. Deliganis

Chryssa V. Deliganis

Harvard Law School (1998), J.D.; University of California Berkelely (1994), A.B.; Seattle University School of Law

Steve Calandrillo

University of Washington - School of Law


The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought to the nation's attention the dangers of disease from unmanaged hazardous waste. Floating debris included drums of medical waste and even human body parts - horrific images that provided a poignant reminder of the need for regulating potentially harmful infectious waste. Congress recognized this need long ago when it passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA), but since this program expired in the early 1990s, little of consequence has been done to regulate medical waste on the federal level.

Although state regulation of medical waste has increased, the need for federal leadership is more important than ever before. A waste transporter that conducts business across state lines now faces numerous conflicting medical waste regulations with which it must comply. Variations in regulatory stringency among the states lead to forum shopping with less strict states becoming dumping grounds for their neighbors. While many states have adopted waste tracking programs, their effectiveness is undercut by the inability to track waste across state boundaries, both due to a lack of uniformity in tracking methods and the inability of states to enforce regulations beyond their borders. Finally, individual generators of medical waste, including diabetics and even I.V. drug users, are almost always overlooked by state and federal programs. The absence of appropriate disposal methods for these sources results in billions of sharps discarded in municipal trash bins each year, endangering millions more Americans. It is now time for a uniform federal system of medical waste regulation - one which (1) specifies minimum standards for handling, disposal, and treatment; (2) calls for nationwide tracking; (3) creates a regulatory framework for individual sources of medical waste; and (4) imposes civil and criminal liability for individuals who violate medical waste regulations. If we cannot muster the political will to tackle medical waste regulation today, thousands of Americans may pay for our failures with their lives.

Keywords: medical waste, regulation, syringe, medical, waste, hospital

JEL Classification: I00, I10, I11, I12, I18, H51

Suggested Citation

Deliganis, Chryssa V. and Calandrillo, Steve, Syringes in the Sea: Why Federal Regulation of Medical Waste is Long Overdue. Georgia Law Review, Vol. 41, pp. 169-227, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Chryssa V. Deliganis

Harvard Law School (1998), J.D. ( email )

5163 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

University of California Berkelely (1994), A.B.

215 Law Building
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

Seattle, WA
United States

Steve Calandrillo (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98195-3020
United States
206-685-2403 (Phone)


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