Written by Amy Piser
22 Sep 2022

What is Pathological Waste?

Identification of different kinds of medical waste streams is an essential part of the healthcare waste management process that encourages safety, reduces injury or exposure to potentially contaminated waste, and most importantly, maintains compliance with state and federal regulations for disposal.

One waste stream that can be tricky to properly define is pathological waste. So what is it and how is it properly handled?


1 / Defining Pathological Waste

2 / Potential Contaminants in Pathological Waste

3 / Handling Pathological Waste

4 / Be Aware of State Guidelines

5 / Benefits of Proper Segregation

6 / Daniels Health is Here to Help 

Defining pathological waste

Pathological waste is defined as any human or animal body parts. This can include organs, tissues, surgical specimens, and bodily fluids removed during surgery or autopsy. This definition does not include teeth.

While the wording and descriptions of pathological waste may differ dependent on source, the term “pathological waste” implies tissue samples or cultures and may also include fluids that are removed due to autopsy, surgical medical procedures, or even trauma.

This definition does not include body parts or tissues that are chemically stored, such as in the cases of formaldehyde. As another guideline, pathological waste is typically of a smaller nature than some sort of human anatomy or anatomical waste, which implies body parts. Pathological waste can be the tiniest slice of tissue or microbiological specimen that is required for some testing research.

In most cases, pathological waste is the result of research or testing requirements. Care must be taken when handling such specimens as they maybe infectious or dangerous in some way. 

Potential contaminants in pathological waste

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), identifies a number of potential contaminants, toxins, or agents that may be found in pathological waste, particularly in biopsy or testing samples. These include:

  • Bacteria such as Yersinia pestis ( simply known as Y pestis)
  • Viruses that include hemorrhagic fever viruses, tick borne viruses that cause encephalitis, Ebola virus, and so forth
  • Toxins
  • Recombinant nucleic acids and/organisms, or other “genetic elements”

Other more common dangers of contaminated pathological contaminants can include anything from smallpox to AIDS viral components. Knowledge of infection control guidelines and processes in any healthcare facility along with adequate training regarding infection control prevention is essential for safety and compliance. 

Handling pathological waste

Pathological waste is considered a regulated medical waste (RMW). However, while regulated medical waste can typically be treated by autoclave to achieve sterilization, depending on state regulations, most pathological waste must be processed through incineration, which is a much hotter treatment that reduces the contents to dust or ash.

Pathological waste must be segregated from other types of RMW, including sharps and chemotherapy waste. Each of those waste streams also has specific guidelines for handling, storage, and disposal.

Any bags, bins, or boxes containing pathological waste should be labeled with clear stickers or placards that specify that the waste is “incineration only” waste. 

Be aware of state guidelines

When it comes to pathological waste guidelines, it’s important to comply with the regulations of the federal government via the EPA. Following guidelines provided by the CDC is also recommended. However, it’s important to know your own state’s guidelines in regard to the handling, packaging, transportation, and disposal of pathological waste.

Refer to state government websites or agencies for detailed information regarding segregation and disposal practices. While the wording and descriptions for pathological waste may not be the same in every state, they typically have the same guidelines for labeling pathological waste. Other agencies often make their own recommendations as well, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that focuses on safety with their Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. Such standards can be applicable to pathological waste disposal depending on the specific scenario.  

It is highly recommended that all waste streams be properly segregated and labeled as close to the point of origin as possible. Pathological waste disposal from laboratories or diagnostics facilities must also undergo certain processes that follow federal as well as state laws.

Pathological waste generators must also follow the guidelines of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and other federal agencies that play a role in medical waste disposal management. 

Benefits of proper segregation

Proper segregation of pathological waste enhances safety and protection for healthcare providers and waste handlers in addition to reducing waste disposal costs. Cost reductions come from the fact that pathological waste containers are not filled unnecessarily with non-regulated waste streams that add weight and bulk.

The costs for disposing of RMW are higher than universal waste because disposal processes differ in scope. For example, if even one item of RMW is placed into a universal waste bag or container, that entire bag or container must be treated and/or disposed of as a RMW, which incurs more steps or processes, more security, more guidelines and more costs for transportation and disposal.

The guidelines for facilities in regard to medical waste segregation, transport, and disposal processes will depend on the volume of waste generated. Some medical facilities have on-site incineration capabilities while others do not.

Some states have special guidelines regarding use of autoclaves, incinerators, or other forms of decontamination or destruction of various waste streams. It is the responsibility of the medical waste generator to be aware of these. This is known as the cradle-to-grave approach, which leaves the medical waste generator the party responsible for medical waste disposal processes from the moment they are generated until they are finally disposed of in a compliant and approved manner. 

Daniels Health is here to help

Healthcare waste laws and regulations can be complicated. With decades of experience in medical waste handling and disposal, we provide products, services, and guidance that helps to ensure compliant and cost-effective pathological waste disposal options based on your needs. For more information about medical waste stream segregation and disposal processes for each, contact one of our knowledgeable representatives today.




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Amy Piser

Amy Piser

Clinical Waste Educator

With 26 years experience working in healthcare, Amy has implemented sustainability initiatives for over 100 hospitals across the United States and brings unique practice and compliance expertise to healthcare waste management.