Drug cri­sis cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous pol­lu­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Michael Casey

LOW­ELL, MASS.» They hide in weeds along hik­ing trails and in play­ground grass. They wash into rivers and float down­stream to land on beaches. They pep­per base­ball dugouts, side­walks and streets. Syringes left by drug users amid the heroin cri­sis are turn­ing up ev­ery­where.

In Port­land, Maine, of­fi­cials have col­lected more than 700 nee­dles so far this year, putting them on track to hand­ily ex­ceed the nearly 900 gath­ered in all of 2016. In March, San Fran­cisco col­lected more than 13,000 syringes, com­pared with only about 2,900 the same month in 2016.

Peo­ple, of­ten chil­dren, risk get­ting stuck by dis­carded nee­dles, rais­ing the prospect they could con­tract blood-borne dis­eases such as hep­ati­tis or HIV or be ex­posed to rem­nants of heroin or other drugs.

It’s un­clear whether any­one has got­ten sick, but the re­ports of chil­dren find­ing the nee­dles can be sick­en­ing in their own right. One 6-year-old girl in Cal­i­for­nia mis­took a dis­carded sy­ringe for a ther­mome­ter and put it in her mouth; she was un­harmed.

“I just want more aware­ness that this is hap­pen­ing,” said Nancy Holmes, whose 11-year-old daugh­ter stepped on a nee­dle in Santa Cruz, Calif., while swim­ming. “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.”

They are a grow­ing prob­lem in New Hamp­shire and Mas­sachusetts, two states that have seen many over­dose deaths in re­cent years.

“We would cer­tainly char­ac­ter­ize this as a health haz­ard,” said Tim Soucy, health di­rec­tor in Manch­ester, New Hamp­shire’s largest city, which col­lected 570 nee­dles in 2016, the first year it be­gan track­ing the prob­lem. It has found 247 nee­dles so far this year.

Nee­dles turn up in places such as parks, base­ball di­a­monds, trails and beaches — iso­lated spots where drug users can gather and at­tract lit­tle at­ten­tion, and of­ten the same spots used by the pub­lic for re­cre­ation. The nee­dles are tossed out of care­less­ness or the fear of be­ing pros­e­cuted for pos­sess­ing them.

One child was poked by a nee­dle left on the grounds of a Utah ele­men­tary school. An­other young­ster stepped on one while play­ing on a beach in New Hamp­shire.

Even if adults or chil­dren don’t get sick, they still must en­dure an un­set­tling bat­tery of tests to make sure they didn’t catch any­thing. The girl who put a sy­ringe in her mouth was not poked but had to be tested for hep­ati­tis B and C, her mother said.

Some com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates are try­ing to sweep up the pol­lu­tion.

Rocky Mor­ri­son leads a cleanup ef­fort along the Mer­ri­mack River, which winds through the old milling city of Low­ell, and has re­cov­ered hun­dreds of nee­dles in aban­doned home­less camps that dot the banks, as well as in piles of de­bris that col­lect in float­ing booms he re­cently started set­ting.

He has a col­lec­tion of sev­eral hun­dred nee­dles in a fish­bowl, a prop he uses to il­lus­trate that the prob­lem is real and that towns must do more to com­bat it.

“We started see­ing it last year here and there. But now, it’s just rain­ing nee­dles ev­ery­where we go,” said Mor­ri­son, a burly, tat­tooed con­struc­tion worker whose Clean River Project has six boats work­ing parts of the 117-mile river.

Among the old­est track­ing pro­grams is in Santa Cruz, where the com­mu­nity group Take Back Santa Cruz has re­ported find­ing more than 14,500 nee­dles in the county over the past 4½ years. It says it has got­ten re­ports of 12 peo­ple get­ting stuck, half of them chil­dren.

“It’s be­come pretty com­mon­place to find them. We call it a rite of pas­sage for a child to find their first nee­dle,” said Gabrielle Korte, a mem­ber of the group’s nee­dle team. “It’s very de­press­ing. It’s in­fu­ri­at­ing. It’s just gross.”

Some ex­perts say the prob­lem will ease only when more users get treat­ment and more fund­ing is di­rected to treat­ment pro­grams.

Oth­ers are count­ing on nee­dle ex­change pro­grams, now present in more than 30 states, or the cre­ation of safe spa­ces to shoot up — al­ready in­tro­duced in Canada and pro­posed by U.S. state and city of­fi­cials from New York to Seat­tle.

Stud­ies have found that nee­dle ex­change pro­grams can re­duce pol­lu­tion, said Don Des Jar­lais, a re­searcher at the Ic­ahn School of Medicine at Mount Si­nai hospi­tal in New York.

But Mor­ri­son and Korte com­plain poor su­per­vi­sion at nee­dle ex­changes sim­ply will put more syringes in the hands of peo­ple who may not dis­pose of them prop­erly.

Af­ter com­plaints of dis­carded nee­dles, Santa Cruz County took over its ex­change from a non­profit in 2013 and im­ple­mented changes. It did away with mo­bile ex­changes and stopped al­low­ing drug users to get nee­dles without turn­ing in an equal num­ber of used ones, said Ja­son Hop­pin, a spokesman for Santa Cruz County.

Along the Mer­ri­mack, nearly three dozen river­front towns are de­bat­ing how to stem the flow of nee­dles.

Charles Krupa, AP

Rocky Mor­ri­son holds up a fish­bowl filled with hy­po­der­mic nee­dles that were re­cov­ered dur­ing 2016 on the Mer­ri­mack River in Methuen, Mass.

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