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The Opioid Crisis' Side Effect That Anyone Can Feel

Dirty needles left behind by drug users have become so prevalent in parks that some public health agencies are leaning on citizens to clean them up.

Man picking up a syringe outside.
(AP/John Minchillo)
Dirty needles littering public parks may sound like a relic of 1980s drug use and urban decay. But as America's opioid crisis has worsened in recent years, governments are once again confronted with the problem. This time, however, the issue isn't confined to big cities.

"It's a visible reminder of what we're facing," says Jessica Grondin, who works in the city manager's office in Portland, Maine.

Coming into contact with used needles left behind by drug users presents a public health hazard. It exposes people to illicit substances like heroin and fentanyl, and could put them at risk of contracting blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis C and HIV. 

In Snohomish County, Wash., home to 25 percent of overdose deaths in the state, the public health department aimed to do something about the scourge of needles littering the community.

Last fall, officials rolled out needle clean-up kits, equipped with instructions, gloves, safety glasses, tongs, hand sanitizer and a container. Interested citizens can pick up the kits at the county health department and return them there for proper disposal.

The county offered 100 kits when it launched the program. They ran out in three days. Since then, the county has given out more than 700 kits, according to Heather Thomas, government affairs manager for the Snohomish Health District. It's also adding sites where people can drop off the kits, like the waste department. 

"It's something we'd been hearing about anecdotally a lot. We have a higher burden of the problem, so we wanted to be proactive, particularly if people are already picking them up,” says Thomas.

But, she says, "it is also important to teach children to never pick up needles found on the ground and to report them to a trusted adult." And the health or fire department will still come to pick them up if reported.

While having citizens take on this risky task is not ideal, Mighty Fine, director of the American Public Health Association's Center for Public Health Practice and Professional Development, says clean-up kits are a safe way to clean up parks without having to wait for the health department to do it.

"As long as volunteers are equipped, then it's totally fine. Parks are really being littered right now, so if there are groups that have things like written instructions, gloves and tongs, making a concerted effort, then it's a great way to clean up," he says.

Portland, Maine, is also tackling this problem.

After a weekend with a high number of overdoses in July 2015, health officials placed secure boxes -- mostly attached to large trash cans -- in the most popular city parks. Unlike in Snohomish County, Portland discourages the general public from handling used needles and instead instructs them to call the health department when they see them strewn about. 

Grondin says in 2017 alone, 1,700 needles were collected this way.


(City of Portland Parks and Recreation)

In Manchester, N.H., residents are similarly encouraged to call the health department when they see dirty needles, and a health official will be dispatched to sweep the area.

“Unfortunately it’s still a prevalent issue," says Tim Soucy, Manchester's health director. "We’ll send a letter to rec leagues soon to give them all the information for calling us."

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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