For the first time, three workers at a medical waste plant appear to have contracted tuberculosis (TB) from working with contaminated waste, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Inadequate safety measures at the plant put the workers at risk for the potentially deadly lung infection.
The medical waste, collected from hospitals, clinical laboratories and medical and dental clinics, was shredded, blown and compacted before it was finally decontaminated.
The investigators also found equipment failures, inadequate training, and sub-par protective gear at the facility, according to a report in the Oct. 4 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
TB is the most deadly infection in the world, killing some 3 million people each year, according to CDC.
While it was once thought to be controlled in developed nations, TB has rebounded in the United States.
Healthcare workers comprise one of the groups at high risk of the airborne infection.
But researchers said there is no way of knowing yet whether medical waste workers are also at increased TB risk.
While medical waste facilities must meet local environmental regulations, little is known about the safety of the workers inside, the study said.
The investigators found conditions at the waste facilities that likely caused the three workers'' infections.
Processing equipment worked in such a way that when it became clogged, air particles blew back toward employees. Two of the infected workers were not required to wear protective respiratory gear.
Researchers noted the importance of decontaminating infectious waste before discarding it.
by Virginia Sutcliffe