Hundreds of tonnes of human body parts and dangerous waste from NHS patients has been stockpiled by a leading disposal company, sparking a national incident.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock chaired a Government Cobra meeting last month and ordered £1m to be earmarked to help up to 50 NHS trusts, whose contracts with Healthcare Environment Services (HES) could collapse following enforcement action against the company by regulators.
NHS England documents leaked to the Health Services Journal (HSJ) reveal that HES, which has five waste handling sites in England, has allowed human waste including amputated limbs, infectious liquids, cytotoxic waste linked to cancer treatment and hazardous pharmaceutical waste to build up in huge stockpiles – sparking concern from the Environment Agency (EA).
HSJ revealed that at HES’s Normanton site, excess waste levels had reached 350 tonnes in September, five times more than the company’s 70-tonne limit. This anatomical waste, which is made up of human body parts and surgical waste, has now been placed in fridges.
HES is also attempting to export 750 tonnes of pharmaceutical waste to the Netherlands.
Affected trusts have been put on standby to store their waste at hospitals in specialist trailers provided by the Government under emergency contingency plans agreed by the Cabinet Office. The plans have not yet been activated because the company is still continuing to collect waste.
According to the leaked documents, in the past year, the EA has served 13 warning notices and two compliance notices on HES for not disposing of its waste within regulatory time frames.
Following a Cobra meeting on 13 September, Hancock agreed that regulatory action against the company should go ahead, which “is expected to lead to imminent cessation of waste collection by HES”.
The affected NHS trusts have been told to stop paying HES for contracts in which the stockpiling constitutes a breach.
Affected trusts include Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals, Calderdale and Huddersfield Foundation, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Foundation, Leeds Teaching Hospitals and East and North Hertfordshire. Plans are underway to put in place a new national contract for the affected trusts.
If HES goes out of business as a result of the enforcement action, it would “significantly impact the management of waste within both hospital and primary care services across England”, the NHS England document states.
HES was at the centre of a legal battle between NHS England and waste company SRCL earlier this year. SRCL accused NHS England of accepting an abnormally low bid from HES; NHS England won the dispute.
If HES and other incinerator companies do not co-operate with the contingency plans to destroy the excess NHS waste, Defra will use its powers to “force the co-operation of all parties”.
HES collects around 584 tonnes of ’incineration-only’ waste and 1,972 tonnes of non-hazardous waste each month from the NHS.
In a statement the company said: ”Healthcare Environmental has highlighted the reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity for the past few years. 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.
”In 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, while we have maintained service to all our clients.
”We are working closely with our various disposal sites, including utilising our own £13m energy-from-waste facility, to reduce the volume on-site, while maintaining services.”
The £31m-turnover company controls around 20% of the healthcare waste disposal market, and holds the sole contract servicing all NHS hospital sites in Scotland. It is owned by Scottish businessman Garry Pettigrew.
Its most recent annual accounts saw it record a gross profit of £15.4m, with sales growing 18% year-on-year.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ”There is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public. We are monitoring the situation closely and have made sure that public services, including NHS trusts, have contingency plans in place.”
NHS Improvement, NHS England and the EAwere approached for comment.
- This story first appeared in HSJ and is used by permission