How cities across Canada are dealing with discarded needles
'Everyone was just so angry about it ... This is not a safe environment for our kids'
As harm reduction programs grow across the country, providing clean needles to drug users, residents in some communities are calling on local governments to do more to clean up public spaces where they say discarded syringes are posing a risk.
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Volunteers in various cities have taken to cleaning up parks, laneways and underneath bridges. It's where the drug paraphernalia has been found and some have suggested needle exchange efforts are contributing to the issue.
But public health workers and experts say such programs are, in fact, part of the solution.
In Moncton, N.B., and Brantford, Ont., volunteers have been going out with rubber gloves and garbage bags to pick up the drug paraphernalia.
In Cambridge, Ont., a handful of residents have taken to social media recently, posting photos of needles found in their neighbourhoods in an effort to call attention to what they say is a growing problem.
"We wanted to know where they were, what was going on," said Mary Jane Sherman, co-founder of the Facebook group A Cleaner Cambridge.
"Volunteers started coming forward to do cleanups. Everyone was just so angry about it ... This is not a safe environment for our kids to grow up in."
Part of the solution
Sherman said local harm reduction programs are contributing to syringes being found in public areas.
But public health experts – such as Carol Strike, a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health – say harm reduction programs are part of the solution when it comes to dealing with discarded needles.
"I'd be concerned if I found a needle in my community, and if I didn't know a lot about the programs I might make assumptions about where the needle came from and how many there are," Strike said.
"(But) the programs that I've worked with across the country ... don't want needles in the community either. That's why they exist, not only to give out needles, but to dispose of them properly."
The number of discarded needles found in a community may rise or fall from time to time, but harm reduction staff generally respond with cleanup "sweeps" and increased efforts on syringe collection, Strike said.
"Over time, some programs actually collect more needles than they give out," she said.
Return rate is high
In Moncton, where a community group known as the Needle Dogs has been collecting stray syringes for a decade, harm reduction workers in the city say the return rate of used needles is high.
AIDS Moncton distributes nearly 200,000 needles to more than 600 people each year, executive director Debby Warren said.
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Each month, between 75 and 90 per cent of those needles are returned safely to the organization, she said.
"We give them containers (to put needles in) and they bring them back," she said. "We also have a drop-off box and that's available to them 24-7."
Vancouver Coastal Health, the public agency that provides health care to a quarter of British Columbia's population, offers needle exchanges and safe injection sites for intravenous drug users.
To help keep used needles off the streets, Vancouver Coastal Health runs a mobile needle exchange program and a hotline where members of the public can report needles they see in their community.
The health agency also has more than 40 needle disposal boxes in parks and laneways around the city, and funds regular "community sweeps," spokesman Gavin Wilson said.
Decline in HIV cases
While the growth of harm reduction practices has led to more discarded needles being found in Vancouver – most of them in alleyways on the city's Downtown Eastside – the advent of needle distribution programs in the mid-2000s has also contributed to a dramatic decline in HIV cases among B.C.'s injection drug users, Wilson said.
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"While we understand the frustration of community members when they come across discarded needles, the risk to the public is extremely low," Wilson said.
He said they don't know of any case where someone "has ever acquired HIV, or any other pathogen, from a needle-stick injury from a discarded needle in a park or any other public place in Vancouver."
In Cambridge, in response to the concerns of groups like Sherman's, the city has expanded its needle collection services, soliciting reports of discarded syringes on public and private property around town.
"No matter where the needle is found ... residents can now call us directly for assistance," Cambridge's director of corporate communications Susanne Hiller said.
"Even if the location is a road or laneway that technically (aren't under city) jurisdiction, we will co-ordinate the clean up as quickly and efficiently as possible."
The city's mayor has also launched a task force to address opioid addiction in the area, while regional public health officials are working toward opening safe injection sites, Hiller said.