PUBLIC CONCERN about the disposal of medical waste first developed two years ago, when syringes washed up on Long Island beaches and the shores of Erie, Ontario and Chautauqua lakes.
Citizens' rage reached a fever pitch when children began collecting needles instead of shells at the New Jersey seashore. Politicians reacted by passing strict laws governing the disposal of medical waste.
"This is a serious environmental problem that has been shoved aside for years, but when needles began washing up on beaches, the attention increased," said Sidney M. Gottlieb, a marketing specialist for Medical Waste Services Inc., a Buffalo company that specializes in the safe disposal of medical garbage.
The company, located at 361 Delaware Ave., provides waste generators, such as doctors and clinics, with containers to separate their medical garbage. Company technicians then transport the refuse to Cleveland, Ohio, where it is burned in a high-tech incinerator.
Medical Waste Services also has contracts with county governments to handle emergencies, like the discovery last November of a plastic bag filled with bandages, vials and syringes in a Kenmore Avenue alley.
"We saw there would be a need for a company like this in the medical industry," Company President Paul Stacharczyk said, explaining he founded the business 2 1/2 years ago to serve a diverse market of small practitioners, veterinarians, morticians, large hospitals and nursing homes. Medical Waste currently employs nine people to serve several hundred clients.
As Western New York's medical community scrambles to comply with new state and federal laws, executives for Medical Waste Services predict their business will take off. Your family doctor and dentist, as well as hospitals and clinics, only have 23 months to meet the new disposal requirements, according to William Pike, vice president of the Western New York Hospital Association.
Medical refuse currently is sterilized and buried in landfills or burned at very high temperatures in incinerators. State and federal environmental officials have expressed concern about both disposal methods, but they are particularly worried about incinerators, which are filling the air with poisonous chemicals.
"There are emissions right now that could potentially cause some serious public health and environmental problems," Stacharczyk said. He stressed that most of the incinerators used by local hospitals were designed to burn pathological waste -- like body parts and infected bedding -- not modern disposable equipment made from non-biodegradable plastics. Thus, as the state requires health-care facilities to reuse less equipment, hospitals and nursing homes are burning tons of waste, releasing acids and particulate matter into the atmosphere, said Melissa Forgione, company vice president.
By Jan. 1, 1992, the state's hospitals must have scrubbers and other pollution-control equipment installed in their incinerators to drastically reduce emissions, she added.
Statewide, the price tag for upgrading incinerators will be $50 million, according to a study by the state Department of Health. Most small hospitals and other waste generators can't afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve their facilities for burning, Stacharczyk said.
"We're a solution to a problem that already exists," he added, explaining he has been working closely with the medical communities in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse to devise a regional approach for waste disposal.
Two local hospitals have signed letters of intent to allow Medical Waste Services to operate an upgraded or newly constructed incinerator on their property, Stacharczyk said. Additional facilities are planned for Rochester and Syracuse.
"Ultimately, we are talking about a facility that will be technologically superior to what's out there now," he said.
"We're looking for a Western New York solution. This would not be for people in Iowa," he added, stressing that Medical Waste Services has no intention of burning wastes from other states or New York City in a local incinerator.
Medical Waste Services had sales of about $150,000 from October 1988 to October 1989, but company executives expect their receipts to climb to $5 million once they begin managing a local disposal facility. The small business also hopes to employ 100 people within the next two years.
Dr. Dennis Epstein, a North Buffalo dentist, likes Medical Waste Services because it allows him to spend more time thinking about his patients rather than waste disposal.
The physician said ever since he signed on with the company, he has felt like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders.
"Go with a company that is established, and that you can investigate to make sure they are doing the job well," he advised his peers.
Medical Waste Services provides its clients with cardboard boxes and special "red bags" for medical garbage as well as plastic containers for "sharps" or needles. The company also offers seminars and in-service training sessions for health care workers.
Prices for waste disposal range from $20 to $34 per box -- containers weigh approximately 30 pounds each.
Dr. Epstein and his partner, Dr. Daniel Martinez are typical of the majority of Medical Waste Services' customers. They also are the audience targeted by waste disposal giants like BFI Waste Systems and Waste Management Inc.
"We don't advocate incineration," said David Balbierz, district manager with BFI. He explained that only about one percent of medical waste is pathological or infectious, and thus must be burned.
A survey, conducted 2 1/2 years ago, found that 44 tons of solid medical waste are generated locally each day -- of this only 9.1 tons are infectious, Pike of the hospital association said. About 26 tons are burned daily, he added.
Doctors, dentists, clinics and other small waste-generators produce the lion's share of medical garbage, Balbierz said.
BFI uses an autoclave method, which subjects wastes to extreme heat and disinfectants. The company then grinds up the waste and buries it in landfills. The company's proposal to build an autoclave or waste treatment facility in Lackawanna has met with determined opposition.
Pike said he understands people's fears about medical waste, but he stressed that incinerators are safe.
"The average person thinks the AIDS virus is going to come flying out of the smokestack, but that's far from the truth. They won't see any emissions," he said.
One of the owners of Medical Waste Services described herself as an environmentalist. "I have a very strong feeling about the environment. With this business, I'm following my heart," Ms. Forgione said.