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Waste not
Medical waste in the sewers? Gross!

Date published: 8/15/2011

GROSS. What else is there to say in response to news that Mary Washington Hospital employees have been dumping medical waste into Fredericksburg's sewers?

Gloves, bandages, tape, towels, even syringes all have been found in sewers, clogging pumps at the Snowden pumping station at least 12 times just since January. Twice the pumps had to be shut down and cleaned out.

To exacerbate matters, these incidents are a dismal repeat of another pump-clogging event several years ago. According to a letter City Manager Beverly Cameron sent to Fred Rankin III, president and CEO of Mary Washington Healthcare, that time the sewers overflowed because of the stalled pumps and it cost the city a pretty penny to fix the problem.

It took a bit of sleuthing to figure out where the waste originated because several medical facilities are located near the hospital. So city workers put hooks in the sewer lines, which snagged the evidence and tagged Mary Wash as the source.

The hospital does not own up to the syringes found in the sewers, but admits being the source of the other waste; it repaid the city for the latest two incidents in which the pumps had to be shut down. MWH officials have figured out that the detritus most likely comes from a "clinical sink"--sort of an oversized toilet, where waste from incontinent patients is processed. (Sorry, breakfast readers.) Only biological material is supposed to be flushed down the sink and into the sewer system, but it's evident that proper procedures are not being followed, resulting in pump-clogging trash going down the drain.

If this had happened just once or twice, one might blame a new or unusually careless employee. But 12 times since the first of the year? And after repeated warnings by the city dating back several years?

This record escalates the situation to a management problem. With 412 beds and hundreds of workers, identifying the culprits (surely more than one) may be difficult. The hospital says it has put up signs and sent missives to employees. Is that it? Signs are easy to ignore: For a long time, cigarette butts, some dropped by hospital workers, littered the MWH campus despite the numerous "no smoking" postings. Suspension or dismissal stands a better chance of shaking off inattention.

As for the city, Mr. Cameron says it will install grinders upstream from the pumps to try to prevent further clogging, but think of it: Who wants ground-up adult diapers and bed pads in the Rappahannock? Phooey on that. The medical waste must be stopped at its source.

So, yes, there is more to say about MWH medical waste in the sewers than "gross." There's also this: "Stop it!"