Discarded needles not pressing problem locally, but awareness necessary

  • The Tapestry Health Needle Exchange site in Holyoke. AP Photo/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liz Whynott, director of HIV health and prevention services at Tapestry Health Systems, speaks during a colleague’s retirement party at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke in January. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 7/19/2017 9:21:45 PM

As awareness of the opioid crisis in America has grown, so has alarm over one of its most visible side effects: needles, used and dropped in public places by users who could be prosecuted for possessing them.

Many communities across the Northeast, including Lowell and Portland, Maine, report increases in the number of dirty needles found in public, The Associated Press reports.

But it’s hard to say for sure whether that’s the case locally, according to several experts in the Northampton area.

“I am questioning the rise in needles found versus a rise of people’s perception of needles that have been there,” said Liz Whynott, director of HIV health and prevention services at Tapestry Health.

“Syringe access and the opioid crisis in general have gotten a lot of attention recently, and I wonder whether people are finally just noticing a problem that’s been here a while.”

Tapestry Health is a Florence nonprofit that operates the only four Department of Public Health-funded needle exchange programs in western Massachusetts.

One of those programs is in Holyoke, where the agency began monthly community needle cleanups in 2013. On average, Whynott said, the agency collects about 50 to 100 needles per cleanup.

“Cleaning up syringes has been an issue in Holyoke for a very long time,” Whynott said. “We used to bring in far, far more than we do now.”

However, Merridith O’Leary, Northampton’s public health director, said she believes she’s seen an increase in needles found in recent years.

“There’s definitely been an uptick in the litter,” O’Leary said. “Many communities are facing byproducts of the addiction crisis. We find the needles in toilets, parks, bus stations, playgrounds, public sidewalks.”

O’Leary encouraged people to avoid touching any needles they might find. The Northampton Police Department will pick up and dispose of needles found by others.

The health department is developing a program to teach people how to properly handle and dispose of used needles, and how to respond if someone is accidently stuck, O’Leary added.

Such safety efforts can only work if the whole city, including schools and families, are willing to be involved in education about the heroin crisis and the syringes it leaves behind, she said.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper agreed with O’Leary on the safety measures that are needed. But Kasper said she doesn’t think there’s been a significant increase in needles in the last year.

“Over the last 10 years, absolutely, there’s been an increase,” Kasper said. “And anywhere needles are left behind, it’s a public safety risk. But in the last year, no, we haven’t seen any more than usual. We’ve been in this boat for a long time.”

One reason it may be difficult to judge how many used needles are left in public is a lack of consistent data collection. The Northampton Police Department has not historically kept track of how many needle collection calls it received, because needle collection was not always a service the department provided, Kasper said.

It is important to note when documentation of needle collection started in many of the cities that report needle increases, Whynott said. Most haven’t been tracking the data for very long.

As awareness of high rates of heroin addiction and dirty needle use has risen in the general public, many are tempted to blame syringe exchange programs for the needles seen around the community, Whynott said.

“But we’re bringing in more needles for disposal than the number of clean needles that we’re giving out,” Whynott said. “If anything, needle exchanges are proven to decrease numbers of found needles.  A lot of needle exchanges are just starting to open in areas that historically have high levels of dirty needle use.”

O’Leary supported this statement, saying that needle exchange programs greatly reduce potential health hazards to heroin addicts and are vital to those who may eventually stop using drugs.

“Addiction was already a problem here, and people were using needles and leaving them long before these programs started,” O’Leary said. “I can see why people take issue with them, but harm reduction programs are not the problem.”

O’Leary and Kasper both encouraged families to discuss what to do if a used needle is found. Though it’s not a conversation many parents think to have with their children, Kasper said, it’s important everyone knows enough to avoid getting stuck with a dirty needle and risking blood-borne illness.

Whynott provided one more note of caution regarding conversations about needles.

“I know this can be a frightening subject, but focusing on syringes can sensationalize the issue,” she said. “Everyone needs to stay safe, but the bigger issue is that we need to provide better access for disposal so it isn’t a problem in the first place.”


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