Human body parts are among hundreds of tonnes of waste from NHS hospitals which have been allowed to pile up by a disposal company.
Healthcare Environment Services Ltd has been found to be in breach of its permits at five sites in England which deal with clinical waste and a criminal investigation has been launched, the Environment Agency said.
Teesside’s two hospital trusts – which run major sites like James Cook University Hospital and the University Hospital of North Tees – said they have ensured they have “robust contingency plans” in place, after news broke.
The Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported amputated limbs and pharmaceutical waste were among the matter which had not been properly disposed of.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said there is “absolutely no risk” to public health.
It is believed the waste was stored securely, but was not being processed and disposed of within the correct regulatory timeframes.
A spokeswoman for the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “We can confirm that our clinical waste is collected by an external contractor and we have robust contingency plans in place to deal with any disruption to services and to ensure there is no impact on services or patients.”
And a spokesman for the trust in North Tees said: “At North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, patient safety is our utmost priority.
“As soon as we were made aware of an issue nationally, we worked closely with NHS England to ensure that we had robust contingency plans in place to continue delivering services in a safe and timely manner.”
A Cobra meeting was chaired by Matt Hancock last month over the issue, the HSJ reported.
Healthcare Environment Services said the UK had experienced “reduced incineration capacity” over the last year, which it had repeatedly highlighted to authorities.
An Environment Agency spokeswoman said it was taking enforcement action against the operator, “which includes clearance of the excess waste, and have launched a criminal investigation”.
She continued: “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.”
A government spokesman said it is “monitoring the situation closely”.
A statement read: “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 under way to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.”
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.
At one site in Normanton, West Yorkshire, excess waste levels reached 350 tonnes in September, the HSJ reported.
This is five times more than the company’s 70 tonne limit, and a small proportion of it is believed to have been human body parts.
Up to 50 trusts have contracts with the company, the HSJ said, but they are not believed to be experiencing disruption to waste collection.