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 failed to incinerate the waste within the time limit – meaning it is in breach of its permits at five sites in England.
A criminal investigation has been launched into the debacle, the Environment Agency said.
The Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported that amputated limbs and pharmaceutical waste were among the matter which had been allowed to mount up.
Affected trusts are on standby to follow emergency measures to store their waste at hospitals in specialist trailers – although these plans have not been enacted yet.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock chaired an emergency COBRA meeting last month and ordered £1million to be earmarked to help up to 50 NHS trusts.
But news of the scandal has only broken today. The authorities scrambled to reassure the Britons that there is no risk to public health.
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the revelations are ‘staggering’ and demanded to know why MPs were not informed about the major incident when it first emerged.
He said: ‘These are staggering revelations and given the number of NHS Trusts involved, along with wider environmental health implications, I’m disappointed the Health Secretary didn’t inform Parliament last month.
‘We need a statement in the Commons next week from ministers detailing when the Government was first informed of this stockpiling, what support is now available to Trusts and what contingency plans are in place for the future.’
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said there is ‘absolutely no risk’ to public health as the waste is being stored securely.
The company has allowed a 350 tonne mountain of waste to pile up across five of its sites – far higher than its a 70 tonne limit.
HES is in breach of its environmental permits at five of its six sites and had its permit suspended at one of its locations which has the biggest pile-up.
It is reportedly attempting to export 750 tonnes of pharmaceutical waste to Holland.
The Environment Agency was first alerted to the problem in March this year and hit the company with a series of warning notices and enforcement orders giving them deadline to get rid of the waste.
But the company failed to meet the deadlines, and the agency alerted the Government to the problem in July.
A COBRA meeting was held in September where emergency funds were allocated to help hospitals affected.
Despite the scandal, the company is still allowed to operate as it has a responsibility to get through its backlog of waste.
But the Healthcare Environment Services has said the blame lies with Britain’s creaking incinerator system.
The company said it has been warning the authorities for years that ‘ageing infrastructure’ and ‘prolonged breakdowns’ mean that firms which dispose of clinical waste cannot get through it quickly enough.
But the Environment Agency dismissed the accusation – saying they had carried out an audit of the sector and no other company had reported similar problems.
It said the UK had experienced ‘reduced incineration capacity’ over the last year, which it had repeatedly highlighted to authorities.
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.’
A Government spokesman 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 under way to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.’
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.’
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 that it had ‘consistently highlighted’ the issue to environmental regulators, and there has been no disruption to services to customers.
HSJ reports the affected trusts were Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust, Calderdale and Huddersfield Foundation Trust, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole FT, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, and East and North Hertfordshire Trust.
It said they have all been told to stop paying HES for contacts, if their stockpiling has breached the limits.