Body parts pile up as NHS supplier fails to dispose of human waste

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By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Government takes emergency action to deal with build-up at company’s sites

Body parts including amputated limbs and waste from cancer treatment have been retained rather than disposed of by a major NHS supplier, prompting the government’s emergency committee to take action.

The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, chaired a Cobra committee meeting last month amid concern that the firm’s failure to get rid of the waste could pose a health hazard.

The company involved, Healthcare Environment Services Ltd (HES), is employed by at least 50 NHS hospital trusts across England. They may now have to make alternative arrangements for disposing of waste created by medical treatment, some of which is dangerous.

Hancock has made £1m available to help the trusts affected by the problems related to the build-up, which has led to the Environment Agency taking enforcement action against HES 15 times.

NHS England documents obtained by the Health Service Journal show that large amounts of various forms of human waste, including amputated limbs, as well as infectious liquids, cytotoxic waste produced during cancer treatment and dangerous pharmaceutical waste, have built up at HES’s five sites in England.

For example, there was 350 tonnes of waste in September at its waste disposal plant in Normanton, West Yorkshire, five times more than HES’s permitted level, HSJ reported. “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 Holland,” the website said.

The Environment Agency has issued HES with 13 warning notices and two compliance notices in the last year because it had not disposed of waste quickly enough.

Hospital trusts are now ready to start putting their waste in specialist trailers provided by the government as a temporary measure, under Cabinet Office contingency plans, though have not yet started doing so because HES is still collecting waste.

Hospital trusts affected include those in Leeds, Barking, Havering and Redbridge, Calderdale and Huddersfield, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole, and East and North Hertfordshire.

An NHS England document says that should HES go out of business because of the enforcement action, that would “significantly impact the management of waste within both hospital and primary care services across England”. HES, owned by Scottish businessman Garry Pettigrew, made a £15.4m profit last year.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “These are staggering revelations and given the number of NHS trusts involved, along with wider environmental health implications, I’m disappointed the health secretary didn’t inform parliament last month.” Hancock should make a Commons statement on the affair next week, he added.

In a statement, HES said: “Healthcare Environmental has highlighted the reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity for the last 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.”

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