Kids tested for HIV after touching needles found in Lethbridge playgrounds

Some Lethbridge children are now undergoing tests for HIV and hepatitis after pricking themselves on needle debris in public areas.

City says supervised consumption site is not to blame for needle debris in public areas

The red circle shows a needle left in middle of a playground structure at Lethbridge's Gyro Park in early September 2018. (Supplied)

Parents in Lethbridge, Alta., say there's growing concern over used needles in the community, with children being forced to undergo repeated blood tests to rule out infections such as HIV or hepatitis after encountering used syringes in places like school playgrounds.

Posts on social media over the past few months have shown needles found in Lethbridge playgrounds, with potentially dangerous surfaces exposed to children.

Roisin Gibb's six-year-old son found and played with a syringe at his school playground. He now has to undergo a year's worth of blood tests in case of an infection. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Lethbridge residents Roisin Gibb and Lori Fowler must take their young children to repeated medical appointments for the next several months, after their sons had separate encounters with needles.

"He found a needle outside his kindergarten classroom," said Gibb, whose son is six years old.

Roisin Gibb's six-year-old son brought this needle home from his kindergarten playground in spring 2018. (Roisin Gibb/Supplied)

Gibb's son brought the needle home after playing with it. After realizing what it was, Gibb contacted public health officials who said the kindergarten student needed to undergo HIV and hepatitis testing to make sure he wasn't exposed.

Those tests require repeated blood tests, along with extra immunizations, over the course of a year.

'He is terrified'

Fowler's three-year-old son stepped on a needle outside their home at the end of June, and is undergoing the same range of blood tests and immunizations as Gibb's son.

"He is terrified. He's only three, he doesn't understand why picking up a piece of garbage has resulted in all of these consequences," said Fowler.

Lori Fowler's three-year-old son stepped on a needle outside their Lethbridge home. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Fowler said her family will be leaving Lethbridge in the coming months and part of the reason is that she feels a rural community will be safer.

For now, Fowler thoroughly checks every playground and park for possible needle debris before allowing her children to play.

"The hardest part is seeing my other two children who are smaller and having to constantly worry when we go out our front door. Is there another needle on our front lawn? Is there needles as we go down the street for a bike ride?" said Fowler.

A needle left behind at Lethbridge's Gyro Park in early September 2018. (Supplied)

"We feel frustrated that we are supposed to accept this as our new norm," said Gibb, who said she believes the distribution of needles should be halted in Lethbridge as a solution.

Fowler is more specific in her blame. The 13-year Lethbridge resident said a local safe consumption site has "been the majority of the problem."

Problem worse without consumption site: Mayor

A supervised consumption site has been open in the southern Alberta city since February 2018, and some are blaming it for instances of needle debris in other parts of the city. However city officials say the opposite is true.

"Since the supervised consumption site opened at the end of February, diverting that much usage inside a facility is minimizing the risk," said Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman.

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman says they can't control the behaviour of individual drug users, but are doing everything they can to deal with needle debris. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"If we didn't have a supervised consumption site in our city, we would have 13 to 15 thousand more uses happening out in the community and I believe we would have that much more needle debris out in the community," said Spearman.

Although it seems like things are bad right now, they could be much worse.- Stacey Bourque,  executive director of ARCHES

Both Lethbridge's safe consumption site and the city's harm reduction supply distribution are run by AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education & Support Society (ARCHES).

"Although it seems like things are bad right now, they could be much worse," said ARCHES executive director Stacey Bourque.

Officials with ARCHES say they are actually distributing thousands fewer syringes this year versus last, with 36,000 needles handed out in August 2017 compared to 12,800 in August 2018.

Stacey Bourque is executive director of ARCHES, which provides drug harm reduction supplies and a supervised consumption site in Lethbridge. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"Now that we have a site, now that we have a facility, it's very visible," said Bourque. "We didn't cause the problem. We're responding to an existing problem. We didn't cause this drug crisis."

Bourque also said ARCHES has been safely recovering more syringes at their facilities than they hand out, so they are actively reducing the number of needles on the street.

City calls on province to help

The City of Lethbridge has funded teams to help clean up needles, along with a "needle hotline" to report any found syringes. 

Signs advising who to call if needles are found are posted throughout Lethbridge, including at Gyro Park. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

However, Mayor Spearman said the province is a key partner in solving the problem, and that Lethbridge needs additional rehabilitation and treatment centres.

According to the mayor, there is only so much the municipality can to do address drug problems in the city.

"We simply cannot control the behaviour of people who are drug addicts, people who are suffering from mental health issues, things like FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder]," said Spearman. "Their behaviour is unpredictable."

About the Author

Anis Heydari

Video Journalist

Anis Robert Heydari has worked in jobs ranging from cleaning up oil spills to fixing phone lines, but all those roads eventually led to being a jack-of-all-trades and CBC News reporter. Reach him at anis@cbc.ca.