Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

Dirty needles in the playground: St. John's drug dangers move into the schoolyard

In the shadow of the door where her son enters school, a St. John's mother teaches a lesson about safety and syringes.

CBC Investigation finds needles outside Bishop Feild, several abandoned schools, area of Long's Hill

Jennifer Newhook contacted the Safe Works Access Program in St. John's to learn how best to pick up dirty needles after discovered needles scattered around a local elementary school. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

In the corner of a schoolyard in downtown St. John's, a mother teaches her son a lesson he should never have to learn.

"This is what a [needle] looks like. I don't want you to ever pick one up," Jocelyne Thomas tells her son as she leads him by the hand to a dark corner in the back of Bishop Feild School on Bond Street.

"But if you see it, you come and get mommy right away."

On this day, Thomas and another mother in the neighbourhood, Jennifer Newhook, picked up about six syringes in the back of the school — an area where their children frequently play.

"Some are full syringes. You can see the blood still in the plunger," said Newhook, as she picked up each syringe with a homemade kit. 

"Of course it's scary ... I have four children. This is their school. This is where they play."

Jocelyne Thomas points to a used syringe outside her son's elementary school, Bishop Feild, where he and his friends regularly play. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

The situation has become so bad, Newhook said, that one of the children witnessed an adult shoot up.

"The only explanation I could give was that we can't begin to explain the problems that that person is going through to be in the situation of injecting drugs in a public place on a kids' playground," said Newhook, who has taken it upon herself to learn how to properly dispose of the dirty needles. 

Testing the system

CBC Investigates set out to test the system: what should you do when you find a used needle? And are the proper protocols in place for the right people to respond?

After Newhook and Thomas alerted us to the needles behind Bishop Feild, we called the City of St. John's 311 hotline. The woman taking the call said because it was on school property, it was the district's responsibility to clean up. 

The woman who answered the phone at the Newfoundland and Labrador Eastern School District (NLESD) sounded concerned and assured us someone would respond right away.

And he did.

It took the district's employee just an hour and a half to get to the needle-laden area on this sunny Friday afternoon. The man, who did not want to be identified, explained he's been trained to pick up the needles and had visited the school before.

Parents Jocelyne Thomas (right) and Jennifer Newhook say the discovery of multiple needles outside Bishop Feild elementary school speaks to the need for increased harm reduction services in St. John's. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

But a school district representative said there are no specfic problem schools. 

Lucy Warren, associate director of education for programs and human resources for the NLESD, said it's "not the case" that discarded needles are worse around some particular schools. 

"We would certainly be concerned for student safety and at all of our schools we would have regular scans of school grounds to identify this and certainly try to get it cleaned up prior to any students being exposed to it." 

Warren said the school district does not keep track of how or where needles are found. 

A quick look at two abandoned schools — Macpherson Elementary on Newtown Road and Booth Memorial High School on Freshwater Road — turned up drug paraphernalia and one used needle. 

Emptied purse near Long's Hill reveals used needles

It's not only the dark corners of schools that have become hazardous. 

A CBC News crew discovered seven used and bloodied needles on a pathway between Long's Hill and Livingstone Street in the downtown area on Monday.

It took just 15 minutes from the time the call was placed to 311 until crews responded to the site and cleaned up the needles. 

Multiple dirty needles, along with other items, were strewn on a well-travelled path between Long's Hill and Livingstone Street in downtown St. john's on Monday. (John Pike/CBC)

"We have a high priority on those calls and our staff are trained on what to do with them," Coun. Danny Breen said. "The problem is significant, and it's growing."

You can be mad at the people who are injecting drugs and you can tell them that's their problem and not deal with it, but we're still going to be left with syringes and other kinds of waste,- Jennifer Newhook

In 2015, the city received 177 calls to its 311 line about needles. Last year, there were 181 calls. To date this year, there have been 162 calls — an average of about six calls per week.

Breen said the city is working towards installing steel cases in areas where drug use is more rampant. 

He's hoping the drop boxes will be installed this fall. 

What's the long-term solution?

As quickly as those needles are picked up, new ones appear just as fast.

"You can be mad at the people who are injecting drugs and you can tell them that's their problem and not deal with it, but we're still going to be left with syringes and other kinds of waste when there's no safe injection site," said Jennifer Newhook.

Breen said there have been discussions in the community about the possibility of a safe injection site — a place where intravenous drug users can be supervised in a clean facility — but those discussions have never reached council. 

There are no safe injection sites in Atlantic Canada. But there are several in Vancouver and Toronto, with the latest opening just Monday in the Moss Park area. 

Watch the video below on how to discard dirty needles using materials from home

How to safely clean up dirty needles

5 years ago
Duration 3:16
Gerard Yetman of the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador walks the CBC's Ariana Kelland through how to safely clean up used needles.

The number of drug users on the northeast Avalon doesn't warrant a safe injection site — at least not yet, according to Gerard Yetman, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador.

More than a million needles distributed

Yetman said stigma would also affect how many drug users would actually go to such a centre, if one were to be built. 

"In Atlantic Canada we don't have large concentrations [of drug users]. It's very dispersed," he said.

"At the same time, this is not something we would not be looking into in the future depending on the amount of drug use that we see over the next couple of years."

Yetman said in 2005 the committee handed out just 90 needles. Last year, more than 1 million were distributed province-wide. More than 280,000 needles were returned for safe disposal.

Charlie Newhook, 10, says "usually any time I come around here (the back of the school) there is some new drug device." (Cal Tobin/CBC)

While the number of returned needles may seem small in comparison to how many are given out, Yetman said drug users are better educated now than before when it comes to safely disposing of needles. 

"We're definitely seeing fewer needles in the community, but we'd like to see none in the community."

But for kids like 10-year-old Charlie Newhook, it's a dangerous barrier to playing with his friends in his neighbourhood. 

"We used to just walk around and try and scare each other," Charlie said, while pointing to the perfect hiding spot.

"But now that this is here, we can't do that."


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit.

With files from Todd O'Brien