01   /   Hazardous Waste Contingency Plans: What Your Kentucky Manufacturer Needs to Know

At its most basic description, an autoclave is a piece of equipment that uses steam to sterilize tools and small equipment, such as those found in hospitals, surgical suites, laboratories and in some pharmaceutical facilities. Autoclaves can also disinfect certain types of medical waste prior to transportation and ultimate safe disposal.

Autoclaves come in a variety of sizes, depending on scenario, but they all have one thing in common: they kill germs, aka microbial life. The machines can be set at different temperatures and run through a number of cycles. Some autoclaves offer numerous functions, such as special cycling or vacuum functionality.

The key to sterilization in a medical setting requires heat. Lots of heat. Steam is extremely effective in producing the heat required to kill microbes. It achieves this by breaking down cellular proteins and causing them to coagulate. The length of time it takes for an autoclave to sterilize an object depends on the temperature of the steam.

How exactly does an autoclave sterilize? At a very basic description, it goes through a number of processes:

  • Phase 1: During this stage, known as the purge stage, the steam starts to flow through the autoclave (sterilizer) to the desired temperature and pressure.
  • Phase 2: Called the sterilization or exposure stage, the exhaust valve of the autoclave closes, further increasing internal pressure and temperature to the desired setting. The machine maintains this setting for a set period of time.
  • Phase 3: The ‘exhaust’ phase occurs as pressure is released from the sterilization chamber through a valve and interior pressure and temperature return to its ambient setting.

Autoclaves can range in size from a typical microwave size to larger than a refrigerator to bulk waste sizes - they can reach twenty-five feet long and ten feet high. Different sizes are accommodate different volume and types of medical waste based on facility and scenario. Temperatures of autoclaves used in medical settings average 250° to 300°F (121°C to 135°C).

02   /   Autoclave requirements for medical waste

In Georgia, autoclave requirements for medical waste specific that all biological waste be autoclaved for at least 30 minutes at 249°F (121°C). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends steam sterilization at either of two temperatures: 250° or 270° to ensure destruction of microbes for infection control.[1] Sterilization timeframes will differ depending on the types of items being sterilized.

Autoclaves developed for medical use are generally used for regulated medical waste. That waste is put into the machine on carts, the door is shut, and steam temperatures set up to 300° kill infectious or hazardous microbes in timeframes averaging 30 minutes to an hour. Afterward, the waste is considered non-infectious. Because it doesn’t pose a bacterial or infectious threat, it can be treated as solid trash and shipped out on a non-hazardous manifest to a non-hazardous landfill.

03   /   What is biomedical waste?

Biomedical waste is known by many different names in the medical waste management industry. The state of Georgia defines it as ‘any solid waste that contains pathological waste, biological waste, cultures, and stocks of infectious agents and associated biologicals, contaminated animal carcasses (body parts, their bedding, and other waste from such animals), chemotherapy waste, discarded medical equipment and parts, not including expendable supplies and materials, which have not been decontaminated’.)

Biological waste is also sometimes known as regulated medical waste as well as red bag waste.

It encompasses items that are or were potentially contaminated by blood, certain body fluids, and other potentially infectious materials. Common items from a doctor’s office or hospital that might end up in an autoclave for sterilization include but are not limited to:

    • Gloves, gauze, gowns, or other items (personal protective equipment or PPE) worn by patients or doctors
    • Used bandages, gauze, and other bedding, suctioning, or other items potentially contaminated with blood or body fluids
    • Used or contaminated sharps (needles, syringes, scalpels, medical knives - anything that can poke or pierce the skin).

    In some cases, regulated sharps medical waste is put through the autoclave and then shredded. This destroys items such as needles or syringes, which, even though they are sterilized, could otherwise pose a threat of needlestick or other injuries.

    04   /   What items should NOT be treated in an autoclave?

    Because the temperature of an autoclave may be set at 300° or less, they are primarily designed to process bacterial waste. They are not to be used to treat hazardous medical waste. Some common examples of hazardous materials include:

    Hazardous medical waste needs to be incinerated. Incinerators operate at a much higher heat settings and destroy hazardous elements in that waste so that it can then safely go into a landfill without leaching into the groundwater or soil.

    05   /   Know the rules for autoclaving

    In order to legally operate in certain capacities, medical waste management companies should always be fully permitted and insured. Autoclaving is no exception. Reputable waste management companies like MCF Environmental Services are, and we not only maintain compliance, but are able to provide advice on numerous aspects of healthcare waste management and all it entails.

    For more information about autoclaving or the proper sterilization of biomedical waste, please contact a representative of MCF Environmental Services, a waste management company with specific experience in the proper treatment of biomedical and hazardous waste.

    Robert Losurdo

    President, COO