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NHS waste backlog: Criminal probe over body parts 'pile up'

A criminal investigation has been launched after a backlog of medical waste including body parts was allowed to build up at six UK disposal sites.

It emerged on Thursday that the waste from hospitals had not been disposed of in a timely fashion by contractor Healthcare Environmental Services.

The Environment Agency said the firm was in breach of permits.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is monitoring two sites where enforcement notices have been issued.

The UK government’s department of health said there was no risk to the public.

Healthcare Environmental Services has a headquarters in Shotts in North Lanarkshire.

The contractor removes the waste from a significant number, but not all, hospitals in England and Scotland.

The waste was being held at five sites in England and one in Scotland and is stored in secure and refrigerated containers.

The problem was first reported by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), which said the disposal company was blaming the backlog on a shortage of high-temperature incinerators.

Safe disposal

A Cobra meeting to discuss the issue was chaired by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock last month over the issue, the HSJ reported.

A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency in England said it had found Healthcare Environmental Services to be in breach of environmental permits at five sites which deal with clinical waste.

She added: “We are taking enforcement action against the operator, which includes clearance of the excess waste, and have launched a criminal investigation.

“We are supporting the government and the NHS to ensure there is no disruption to public services and for alternative plans to be put in place for hospitals affected to dispose of their waste safely.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) said it was working closely with the Environment Agency and “robustly monitoring sites in Scotland”.

A spokesman added: “On 12th September Sepa issued Enforcement Notices to Healthcare Environmental Services regarding sites in Dundee and Shotts, with officers conducting ongoing monitoring.”

A UK government spokesman said it was monitoring the situation closely and had made sure that public services – including NHS Trusts – had contingency plans in place.

He added: “There is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public.

“Our priority is to prevent disruption to the NHS and other vital public services and work is under way to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.”

The Scottish government said there had been no reports of any impact on these services from NHS boards in Scotland.

A spokesman added: “In the event of any disruption to service at NHS sites across Scotland, NHS Scotland already has contingency plans ready to put into place to ensure there is no impact on services to patients or staff.”

‘Reduced incineration capacity’

Healthcare Environmental Services said it had highlighted the reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity for the last few years.

A spokesman added: “This is down to the ageing infrastructure, prolonged breakdowns and the reliance on zero waste to landfill policies, taking up the limited high-temperature incineration capacity in the market.

“Over the last year, this reduced incineration capacity has been evident across all of the industry and has affected all companies.”

At one site in Normanton, West Yorkshire, excess waste levels reached 350 tonnes in September, the HSJ reported.

This is five times more than the company’s 70 tonne limit.

Yvette Cooper, Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the issue was “very concerning” for the local community.

She said people wanted to know what the environmental and public health implications were for the firm going over its waste level limits.

“We need to know how this happened, and what is being done to sort it,” she added.

Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, described the situation as “simply horrific”, saying it was “unlikely that such a distressing situation would have happened had the service remained in-house”.

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BBC News – Health