A waste disposal company with lucrative NHS contracts has come under fire by the UK government after it was revealed that they have failed to properly destroy hundreds of tons of hazardous healthcare waste – a category that includes human body parts and fluids, surgical detritus, and toxic pharmaceutical agents such as chemotherapy drugs.
According to an investigative report by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), Healthcare Environmental Services (HES) has been issued 13 warning notices and two “compliance notices” from the Environment Agency in the past year, following findings that the company was not disposing of waste within the required time frames. NHS documents leaked to the HSJ indicate that one of the company’s five waste handling sites located in Normanton, West Yorkshire, had accumulated a stockpile of 350 tons worth of clinical waste as of September, considerably more than the 70-ton limit they are supposed to adhere to. This potentially dangerous material has since been put into refrigeration. HES is also attempting to ship 750 tons of pharmaceutical waste to the Netherlands.
Currently, Healthcare Environmental Services handles waste from at least 50 NHS trusts, including all hospital sites in Scotland. Each month, they receive 584 tons of “incineration-only” waste and 1,972 tons of non-hazardous waste. As to why they have been able to properly process these waste streams, the company – who raked in £15.4 million of gross profit last year – told HSJ that a lack of modern incinerators and strict national policies are to blame.
“Healthcare Environmental has highlighted the reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity for the last few years. This is down to the aging infrastructure, prolonged breakdowns and the reliance on zero waste to landfill policies, taking up the limited high-temperature incineration capacity in the market,” they stated to the journal.
“Over the last year, this reduced incineration capacity has been evident across all of the industry and has affected all companies. Healthcare Environmental has been in discussion with the environmental regulators and has consistently highlighted these issues, whilst we have maintained service to all our clients," they added, noting that efforts to reduce waste are underway.
Per the HSJ, the company controls about 20 percent of the overall healthcare waste disposal industry in the UK.
On September 13, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock led a secret emergency multi-agency meeting to discuss how to proceed in the face of HES’ mounting violations. The group decided to open a criminal investigation into the company and determined the NHS would immediately stop paying HES, as the company’s history of waste build-up constitutes a breach of contract, and they allocated £1 million in funds to help the affected trusts deal with waste disposal until an alternative is found. Yet although special waste collection trailers have been deployed to these sites, HES is still collecting waste as of last week.
Meanwhile, Hancock and officials from Environment Agency and are under scrutiny themselves for not alerting parliament or the public to the ongoing issue – none of this information was public until the HSJ report was published on October 4.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, whose constituency includes the area of the Normanton processing facility, told BBC’s Today program: “It is very concerning for the local community, who still don’t have the basic facts."
When questioned by HSJ, the Department of Health and Social Care stated: “We are monitoring the situation closely and have made sure that public services – including NHS trusts – have contingency plans in place. There is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public.”