POMONA — Shortly before noon every day, a garbage truck pulls into the Spadra landfill to dump an estimated 1,700 disposable diapers used by disabled patients at the Lanterman Developmental Center.
County health officials say that the daily deliveries are just a small and relatively harmless part of the several hundred tons of waste buried at the landfill each day.
But the state employees' union that represents most of the hospital's workers contends that the large amounts of fecal material being disposed of could constitute a public health hazard by contaminating local ground water supplies.
The dispute, described by health officials and union leaders as a political battle as much as a sanitation concern, began 18 months ago when state hospitals started to eliminate in-house laundry services by converting from cloth to disposable diapers for incontinent patients.
Although a county report has stated that the disposable diapers do not pose a health threat, leaders of the California State Employees' Assn. say they still are "ready to do battle" over the handling of the potentially infectious garments.
"The diapers are contaminated by the very nature of where they're coming from," said Richard Funderburg, regional manager for the employees' union, which has targeted Lanterman Developmental Center as the state hospital that produces the largest number of soiled diapers. "It's raw sewage."
Sanitation officials maintain that the charges are unfounded, despite a three-day ban on the diaper disposal imposed by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts at the end of April after initial complaints from the union were received.
A subsequent investigation by the county Department of Health Services concluded that, although the soiled diapers are "potentially hazardous," the method of disposal is in compliance with current regulations.
"Overall infectious waste handling practices were reviewed during a complete survey of the facility . . . " the department stated in a May 8 letter to the hospital. "No problems were noted."
Funderburg criticized the report as "bureaucratic gobbledygook," and said he would lobby for a legislative ban on the diaper dumping.
"There's a reason why they're in those diapers in the first place," Funderburg said, adding that he thought developmentally disabled persons are especially susceptible to infectious disease. "It would be absolutely impossible to say that stuff's not hazardous."
However, Rowena Taylor, executive director of Lanterman Developmental Center, said that the diapers of disabled persons are no more infectious than those discarded by the average household.
When a hospital resident is found to have an infectious disease, she said, the contaminated diapers are labeled and sterilized before being discarded.
"We're trained to recognize those things," Taylor said. "I feel we're very safe."
Even if contaminated diapers are buried in the landfill, heat from the decomposing process would kill any infectious materials, said Ray Huitric, a solid waste specialist for the sanitation districts.
"Solid waste disposal sites simply have not been a source of disease," he said. "(Any infection) would not survive in the landfill."
Water Supplies Protected
In addition, Huitric said, it is impossible for toxins to seep into local water supplies because of a concrete barrier embedded in rock formations that serves to divert any water passing below the landfill.
Funderburg contended that the hospital laundry was built with a filtering system that he claimed was a safer method for treating the fecal material.
When it became too expensive to renovate the deteriorating laundry equipment, Funderburg said, state hospitals began converting to disposable diapers.
While state health officials have maintained that they hope to save money by contracting out for all other laundry services, Funderburg charged that the real intent is to eliminate jobs held by his union members.
In the last year, Lanterman's 30 laundry workers have been transferred to other positions or placed in training programs. Funderburg said he fears that some employees are intentionally being pushed into higher-level jobs where they might fail, thus eliminating them from the payroll.
"It's just another example of the state attempting to dismantle the state hospital system," he said.
Over the last 10 years the number of developmentally disabled patients in state hospitals has dropped by about 750 a year to the current 7,000, mirroring a trend toward transfering state hospital services to community health-care facilities, said Gary Macomber, director of the state Department of Developmental Services.
However, the reason behind the decrease in the number of patients has nothing to do with a desire to eliminate state hospital jobs, Macomber said.
Least Restrictive Environment