This was the scene that Kevin Okleberry, an environmental scientist for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, found when he was called by dispatch on the night of March 5, 2005. “It’s presumed that any blood or body fluid is potentially infectious and treated as such,” said Okleberry, at a recent trial in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.
The day Okleberry found the waste, the nearby Pioneer Valley Hospital biohazard security shed had been broken into and bags of waste were stolen. The hospital’s surveillance camera caught someone carrying bags of waste to the back of a car. Just as a security guard ran outside, the car sped away, but the guard got the car’s license-plate number.
Investigators later identified vials inside the bags as recovered waste from the hospital, according to health department investigator Karl Hartman. The vials and the license plate of the car caught speeding away from the hospital were enough evidence to charge the car’s owner, Bryan Tavenner of Richfield with three felonies: one count of burglary and two of illegally transporting hazardous waste.
In his two-day jury trial before Judge Stephen Henriod, which began Aug. 14, Tavenner, 26, sat beside his attorney wearing a white dress shirt and chewing on gum, his straight blond hair combed across his forehead. Tavenner watched as the Salt Lake County prosecutor William Kendall argued the defendant had not only broken into the biohazard shed behind Pioneer Valley Hospital, but also later had dumped the bags of waste in a nearby trash container. Kendall said it could have been only for one reason: drugs. “I submit to you that the suspect’s motives were to come back and get some drugs for free, that’s what he was looking for,” said Kendall in his closing statement to the jury.
Tavenner’s attorney, Catherine Lilly, denied every charge, contending her client was at the hospital for treatment of kidney stones. Most troubling, she said, was how the investigation of the case was botched with every step. “The overarching question in this case is bad police work,” Lilly said.
Unfortunately, dumping infectious waste is a regular affair in Salt Lake County, says Dale Keller, bureau supervisor for environmental health at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. Keller’s team deals at least weekly with illegally dumped biohazards. “It’s not uncommon for someone to call our office and say ‘I was walking my child to school, and we saw a syringe on the side of the road,’” he said. But his work also includes more grotesque finds. Bloody sheets and even body parts have been found in the trash. They have to be dealt with as biohazards too, he says.
While it is not always clear who is responsible for the illegally dumped infectious waste, Keller knows where most of the county’s medical waste comes from. Weekly, more than 50 pounds of infectious waste are discarded at approximately 800 locations across the country. But exactly how much waste is collected is unknown. Hospitals and clinics are not required to document the quantity of waste they dispose of.
The regulation of infectious waste is relatively recent. Ever since the infamous health scare in the late ’80s when used needles washed up on New Jersey beaches, infectious waste has been on the minds of the public, partly due to concerns about the transmission of AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases.
The Medical Waste Tracking Act, passed in 1988, was the first federal legislation to regulate the handling, transportation and dumping of infectious waste. But when the act expired in 1991, it was found its stringent rules for tracking infectious waste made little difference as regards public health, according to a Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste (DSHW) briefing, available on its Website.
In 1993, Utah passed its own law, governing infectious waste. The bill was a compromise between health concerns and logistics. “The Utah infectious waste rules are based on providing protection of health and the environment without setting undue burdens on infectious waste generators,” according to the DSHW. Up until the present, “No instances of public illness caused by such exposure have been reported,” according to the DSHW.
Today, much of the state’s infectious waste ends up in landfills. Besides being regulated for its transportation and handling, infectious waste is treated like regular garbage. Waste not buried goes to incinerators. Stericycle in Bountiful, the state’s largest medical-waste incinerator, burned 563 tons of waste from Utah alone in 2006, according to Ralph Bohn, solid-waste-detection manager for the DSHW.
Medical waste is not dangerous enough to be tracked like hazardous materials such as lead, mercury or dioxin, said Keller. If it were, everything from dirty diapers to soiled sheets would need to be tracked, too—and that is not feasible.
As for alleged medical-waste bandit Tavenner, the jury found him guilty on all charges. He faces up to 15 years in state prison at a later sentencing hearing.