Vaccines and the HAZMAT Team Myth

Do unused vaccines need to be disposed of as hazardous waste?

If you drop a vaccine vial and it breaks, do you need to call in a HAZMAT team to clean it up?

If a HAZMAT team shows up a pediatricians office, it is probably because someone got sick from fumes - from burned popcorn...
If a HAZMAT team shows up a pediatricians office, it is probably because someone got sick from fumes – from burned popcorn… Photo by Kathy Nellis Chastney

Have you heard any of these anti-vaccine myths?

Would you be scared to vaccinate your kids if you had?

Vaccines and the HAZMAT Team Myth

While spilling elemental or metallic mercury, like by breaking a mercury filled glass thermometer (about 500mg of mercury), could release dangerous mercury vapors that need to be cleaned up carefully, vaccines never contained this type of elemental mercury that could vaporize like that.

And the amount of thimerosal or ethylmercury that used to be contained in vaccines, before it was removed beginning in 2000, was very small, even in multi-dose vial of vaccines.

Believe it or not, kids used to play with metallic mercury...
Believe it or not, kids used to play with metallic mercury… Photo by Bionerd (CC BY 3.0)

While you should be concerned if you drop a fluorescent light bulb in front of your kids, you don’t have to be if someone drops a vaccine vial.

And that being said, you don’t have to call a HAZMAT team if you break a CFL or other mercury containing light bulb, even though they might contain about 4,000mcg of mercury. As a precaution, you just let the room air out for out 10 minutes and then you carefully clean it up.

You don’t even have to call a HAZMAT team if you break a mercury thermometer, which can contain up to about 500,000mcg of mercury! Just let the area air out and then follow instructions to carefully clean it up.

How much mercury is in a typical multi-dose vaccine vial?

None.

But those that still contain thimerosal can contain up to 250mcg of ethylmercury per 10 dose vial. That’s about 6% of the amount of mercury that is in the light bulb (and 0.05% of the amount in the thermometer) and it is mixed with other ingredients, so you don’t have to worry about it being released as a mercury vapor.

And since you don’t have to call a HAZMAT team for the much larger quantities of metallic mercury in light bulbs and thermometers, why would you ever think you would have to for vaccine vials, which don’t even contain metallic mercury that can become a vapor that you can inhale?!?

Vaccines as Hazardous Waste

But if you don’t need a HAZMAT team, then how do you get rid of unused vaccines?

“In general, most empty vaccine vials are not considered hazardous or pharmaceutical waste and do not require disposal in a biomedical waste container. However, requirements for medical waste disposal are regulated by state environmental agencies so you should contact your immunization program or state environmental agency to ensure that your disposal procedures are in compliance with state and federal regulations.”

CDC on Vaccine Storage and Handling

It depends.

Still, most can be thrown away as medical waste.

Those that contain a preservative, like thimerosal, usually need to be thrown away in a hazardous waste container and disposed of through a hazardous waste disposal company.

Hazardous waste? Wait, doesn’t that mean HAZMAT?

No, but that’s where the myth likely comes from. Remember, you’re not supposed to throw out old CFLs in the trash either.

In the real world, most unused vaccines that are expired are simply returned to the manufacturer.

While having to deal with a hazardous waste disposal company sounds like a big deal, it is important to remember that almost all vaccines are now preservative free. The flu shot may still contain thimerosal, but the great majority,  at least 130 million doses, were preservative free this year.

So, few pediatricians likely have to deal with vaccines with preservatives or hazardous waste disposal companies. And hopefully they don’t have any old mercury thermometers lying around either.

That just leaves these myths about vaccines which never seem to go away…

What to Know About Vaccines and the HAZMAT Team Myth

Having to call a HAZMAT team to clean up after a broken vaccine vial is another myth about vaccines that is simply meant to scare you away from vaccinating and protecting your kids.

More on Vaccines and the HAZMAT Team Myth

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