Hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste including human body parts from NHS patients has been stockpiled by a waste management company, sparking a national incident.
Amputated limbs, hazardous pharmaceutical waste and waste materials from cancer treatments sent to Healthcare Environment Services Ltd (HES) have built up to unsustainable levels due to a lack of incineration capacity, according to leaked NHS England documents sent to the Health Services Journal.
An emergency COBRA meeting was called last month, chaired by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, and earmarked £1 million to provide specialist trailers to store the waste.
These specialist trailers, which are part of contingency plans agreed by the Cabinet Office, have not yet been activated as the company still continues to collect waste.
Five times the company limit
A spokesman for Healthcare Environmental Services 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.
"Over the last year, this reduced incineration capacity has been evident across all of the industry and has affected all companies."
It added it had "consistently highlighted" the issue to environmental regulators, and there has been no disruption to services to customers.
An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: "The Environment Agency has found Health Environmental Services to be in breach of its environmental permits at five sites which deal with clinical waste.
"We are taking enforcement action against the operator, which includes clearance of the excess waste, and have launched a criminal investigation.
"We are supporting the Government and the NHS to ensure there is no disruption to public services and for alternative plans to be put in place for hospitals affected to dispose of their waste safely."
'No risk to the health of patients'
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said there is "absolutely no risk" to public health.
A government spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the situation closely and have made sure that public services – including NHS Trusts – have contingency plans in place. There is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public.
“Our priority is to prevent disruption to the NHS and other vital public services and work is underway to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.”
In September, excess waste levels at the HES’ Normanton site reached 350 tonnes, five times more than the company’s 70 tonne limit.
HES is attempting to export 750 tonnes of waste to be disposed of in Holland.
Dr Kathy McLean, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Medical Director of NHS Improvement said: “The NHS has contingency plans in place for clinical waste and patients should be assured that their care will be unaffected.”
According to the leaked documents, the Environment Agency has served 13 warnings and notices and two “compliance notices” in the last year on HES for not disposing of its waste within the regulatory time limits.