The worsening heroin epidemic in the United States has raised safety concerns for both the environment and the general population. In fact, not half of 2017 has passed and yet authorities in Portland, Maine have already collected more than 7,000 discarded syringes left by drug users, exceeding the nearly 900 discarded syringes collected in all of 2016. For their part, San Francisco, California officials collected more than 13,000 discarded syringes in March alone, compared with only 2,900 syringes collected the same time last year.
According to officials, the discarded syringes were inconspicuously placed in isolated areas where drug users can gather and attract little attention. Coincidentally, the places they usually choose are practically any public space that is used for family recreation. Officials noticed that syringes started appearing in weeds along hiking trails and in playground grass. They also get washed up in rivers, eventually reach downstream, and settle on beaches. Likewise, the harmful implements are also seen in baseball dugouts, sidewalks, and streets.
This occurrence increases the risk of getting stuck by the discarded needles, officials said. It can also exacerbate the odds of contracting blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In addition, this raises concerns of being exposed to traces of heroin or other drugs. While it remains unclear whether anyone has ever gotten sick after touching a discarded needle, there have been alarming cases of children getting a hold of the potentially harmful apparatuses.
Alarming reports of children being exposed to discarded needles
Earlier this month, a nine-month-old girl in Philadelphia accidentally overdosed after being stuck in the leg with a hypodermic needle. The police resorted to using Narcan, an opioid reversal drug, to revive the baby. According to police reports, the baby was in bed with her father when she accidentally rolled onto the syringe. The baby was treated at Chestnut Hill Hospital, while her father was charged with a slew of complaints including aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child, simple assault, and reckless endangerment.
In a related development, a six-year-old girl in California mistook a discarded syringe for a thermometer and put it in her mouth. While the girl was unharmed, she had to undergo a series of testing for hepatitis B and C. In addition, an 11-year-old girl in Santa Cruz, California reportedly stepped on a discarded syringe while swimming. “I just want more awareness that this is happening. You would hear stories about finding needles at the beach or being poked at the beach. But you think that it wouldn’t happen to you. Sure enough,” the girl’s mother said in an article on The Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily News website.
Keisha McCarty-Skelton, Philadelphia’s Streets Department spokeswoman, said discarded needles remain a health hazard that even sanitation professionals exercise caution with. Discarded needles are supposed to be placed in hard-sided containers. However, not all residents comply with the precautionary measure. McCarty-Skelton said residential trash collectors are discouraged from handling loose needles, and that hazard pay for those assigned to clean them up are now being discussed.
Cities counting on various programs to reduce human, environmental risk
A number of cities across the U.S. have turned to needle exchange programs to address the growing risk of needle contamination. Such programs are now present in more than 30 states. Other states and cities are also looking into the possibility of introducing safe spaces where heroin dependents can do their thing, a measure that was already proposed in Canada.
According to Don Des Jarlais, a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, previous studies have shown that needle exchange programs help reduce pollution. (Related: Philadelphia Turns Into Heroin Wasteland: 500,000 Used Syringes And Piles Of Trash Depict ‘Heroin Hellscape’)