Taking a whack at waste problem Baltimore company's device grinds, sterilizes infectious debris

A niche created by EPA

Dentist co-founded the Antaeus Group, developer of SSM 150


August 04, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

After the EPA passed stricter clean air regulations in 1990, Sanford Glazer noticed a common refrain among his professional peers -- in medicine of all places.

"Universally they said that getting rid of medical waste had become a real pain," recalled Dr. Glazer, a Potomac dentist.

The reason: The new rules clamped down on air emissions of toxic chemical compounds, particularly dioxin, which occur during combustion of a wide variety of materials used in medical devices, from bedpans to syringes. Traditionally such equipment has been packed with other infectious medical wastes, such as blood and tissue, and burned in hospital incinerators.

The EPA regulations -- which are being updated and are expected to become even tougher -- have forced hundreds of U.S. hospitals and other institutions to shut down incinerators that can't comply and have given rise to a huge new industry, infectious medical waste hauling.

As Glazer listened to the grousing about rising hauling costs, he began to search for a solution, and he eventually hired an engineering firm to build a prototype of a machine that he believed could replace hospital incinerators that couldn't meet the EPA's new rules.

Today, the dentist, now semi-retired, spends a lot of time in a Southwest Baltimore factory where engineers are fine-tuning a piece of technology that resulted from the brainstorming. Later this year, Antaeus Group, the Baltimore company Glazer co-founded and to which he now acts as a consultant, plans to begin marketing the device, one of the new "alternative technologies" now hitting the market to handle "red bag" waste, so called because it is loaded in dark red bags marked with a biohazard sign.

At stake is a $3 billion medical waste disposal business in the United States, and eventually business in Japan and Europe, where environmental issues also have high priority, industry experts say.

From the outside, the Antaeus Group's device, named the SSM [steam sterilization macerator]-150, but sometimes called the waste whacker, looks like a huge metal shoe box with a boat hatch on one side. It is about 10 feet long, 7 feet high and 4 feet wide.

Inside, it might be thought of as a high-tech marriage of two common kitchen conveniences, the steam cooker and the garbage disposal.

A key technological component in the design: a 7-inch macerating -- or grinding -- blade that took engineers three years to design and develop.

Unsorted medical waste is loaded through the hatch and the operator hits a button that triggers a 300-degree steam bath. Within a minute, a flow of very hot water begins to pump the waste materials toward the grinder blade moving at 1,800 revolutions per minute. It begins shredding and smashing to bits everything from titanium metal sutures and clamps to cotton swabbing. (Human body parts and radioactive materials are barred from disposal in such a device.) The waste mass is constantly cycled through the steam and hot water bath and grinder for about 35 minutes.

The end result is a sterilized, clotted mass of plastic and metal chips, shredded cotton and other textiles. Sterilized fluids from the process would be drained into the local sewer tap. Solid masses would be hauled off with the hospital's regular garbage rather than by medical waste haulers. A computer program monitors the entire process.

This month, Antaeus plans to install test units at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Franklin Square Hospital to gather performance data.

The company expects to sell 100 units in the first year, said Mark Barnett, Antaeus' president. The units will likely sell for about $200,000 each.

Antaeus is also looking into other arrangements to market the waste whacker. Those options include leasing them to institutions such as prisons and nursing homes that may not be able to afford to buy a unit, and installing units for free and collecting fees to operate them, Barnett said.

"The beauty of this technology is it offers us a lot of different ways to market it," Barnett said.

Later this year, the company, which now employs just a handful of people, plans to add staff as it beefs up for sales and marketing and engineering smaller models of the whacker.

William Norton, Antaeus' senior vice president for business development, says several trends are working in the company's favor. A key one is the tougher EPA regulations due to be unveiled next year. Antaeus Group estimates that the rules could shutter at least 80 percent of the 2,400 hospital and medical institution incinerators still in operation in the United States, said Norton. Added to that is increased financial pressures on hospitals resulting from managed care.

"From a marketing standpoint our timing couldn't be any better," Norton said. "There just aren't many technologies available today to deal with incinerating [medical] waste on site."

Antaeus, however, does face competition.

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