Disposing of the Medical Waste Problem

Published December 10, 1994

No terrorist could have devised a better plan to jeopardize biomedical research and deny modern medical treatments to Americans who desperately need them. Unfortunately, it’s not foreign terrorists who are forcing American hospitals to store their own low-level radioactive wastes.

When the South Carolina legislature voted to close its Barnwell disposal facility to imported waste, it left a number of hospitals in the Midwest and Northeast with just a few months’ storage capacity. As a result, some of these hospitals may be forced to deny patients necessary and appropriate care.

Only one facility in the country–the Richland site in Washington State–is now accepting waste from areas outside its region. It has been handling radioactive material safely for nearly 30 years. And it will continue to accept low-level waste from medica l facilities in the Northwest and Rocky Mountain states. Low-level wastes include papers, tools, uniforms, and other materials contaminated by exposure to radiation.

There is already anecdotal evidence of hospitals and research facilities beginning to cancel projects in order to preserve space in their waste storage areas. At Cedars- Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which operates approximately 100 biomedical rese arch laboratories, certain heart disease and diabetes research projects have been curtailed. In New York City, several hospitals–including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center–have said they are cutting back on cancer and AIDS research because they wo n’t be able to dispose of the radioactive waste from their work.

Regional disposal is the safest and most cost-effective method for handling radioactive material. Under a 1980 law, states assumed responsibility from the federal government for low-level waste disposal. Most states have entered into compacts to develop r egional disposal facilities; a few states, such as New York and Michigan, are proceeding on their own.

Too many Americans fail to appreciate the enormous benefits that result from the use of radioisotopes and radioactive materials. Even outside of medicine, countless products–smoke detectors, fertilizers, cosmetics, and gauges that make highways, building s, and airplanes safer–are made more efficiently and at lower cost by using such materials. And radioactive materials are crucial to many industries.

Every year in the United States, products and activities that use radioactive materials generate $257 billion in sales, 3.7 million jobs, and $45 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues, according to a recent study by Management Information Serv ices, Inc. And this estimate does not include the benefits of nuclear power generation.

Unless they are prepared to write off key sectors of their economies, states must deal rationally with the waste issue. Isn’t it better to dispose of low-level waste in one secure place, maintained and monitored by trained professionals, than to insist th at the waste remain at dozens of sites in hospitals, research labs, and industrial facilities around the country?

We have the technology to manage radioactive waste safely. By establishing new disposal facilities, states could avoid a costly and unnecessary shortage whose painful consequences may be measured not only in dollars, but in the loss of many of our most va luable human resources.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Why We Spend Too Much on Health Care (2nd edition 1993).