Canadians are seeing an unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases logged across the country. Along with it has come a sharp increase in demand for rapid antigen tests (RATs), devices that offer on-the-spot results letting users know whether they have COVID-19 in 20 minutes or less.
Aside from questions about where to access these tests and how to use them, it’s also important to consider how to dispose of rapid test kits after they’ve been used.
Under the best circumstances, used tests would be disposed of as biohazardous waste at an authorized disposal site, said Miriam Diamond, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto. This is because they contain biological material collected from the nose.
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But the reality is that most people will likely just toss them in their household garbage, she said.
“They will de facto be going into the garbage because it’s highly unlikely that people will have segregated garbage [for biohazardous waste],” Diamond told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday in a phone interview.
She also pointed out the possibility that certain chemicals included in these tests could be hazardous. The Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID-19 rapid test is one of several testing devices authorized by Health Canada. One of the active ingredients in the buffer solution is sodium azide, which is especially hazardous if disposed down the sink, Diamond said. Despite this, it’s likely that only a small amount would be used and that any risk associated with using the test would be minimal.
“My bet is the risk is low because people will not come into direct contact with [the chemicals] because they’re contained in small quantities in these pre-packaged test kits,” she said.
WEIGHING THE RISKS
The province of Ontario’s guidelines for business owners when it comes to disposing of rapid COVID-19 test kits state that kits should be discarded at an authorized hazardous waste disposal site. There are three approved facilities for the disposal of biomedical waste listed on the province’s website. But these types of regulatory guidelines don’t necessarily apply to waste generated from rapid antigen tests performed at home, said Brad Sheelleer, director of safety and business operations for the faculty of science at York University in Toronto.
When determining whether an item should be considered biomedical waste that requires disposal at a specific site, or basic health-care waste that can be disposed of at home, part of this depends on the context, Sheelleer said. Changing the gauze on a wound at home, while considered home health-care waste and safe to dispose of in the garbage, would be considered biomedical waste in a hospital setting, he said. The concept would apply similarly to rapid antigen tests performed at a testing centre versus at home, he said.
“It goes back to the difficulty in managing biomedical waste in general at home, and why it’s usually considered home health-care waste,” Sheelleer said. “The possibility of trying to manage that or expecting people to do that is so difficult.”
The difficulty that comes with managing household waste and imposing additional regulations to what can and can’t be disposed of at home needs to be weighed against the potential risk of throwing these tests out as part of household trash, both experts said.
“It’s a cost-benefit analysis, because we need these tests,” Diamond said.
Ultimately, according to Sheelleer, the potential risk that comes from disposing of a used rapid test at home is low.
“With the at-home antigen rapid test, the amount of biological material collected would be less than what is left on a tissue when you blow your nose, for example,” he said. “So the added risk from the test kits used in the home is very minimal.”
He does, however, recommend consulting with municipal bylaws for guidance on disposal to confirm whether tests can be thrown out along with household trash.
Different Canadian cities such as Ottawa and Calgary suggest it’s OK to dispose of COVID-19 rapid antigen test kits along with household garbage. This includes the buffer bottle, extraction tube, swabs, swab packaging, testing device and any additional plastic components. Some cities such as Hamilton, for example, recommend that any waste be double bagged before placed in a garbage container.
“Even though it might be acceptable to dispose of them through regular household trash, it’s always good to have people take a look at their local municipalities and see how it’s expected within that municipality to dispose of them because there may be different rules,” Sheelleer said.