Syringe Pollution: 1 More Threat of Harm Caused by Injection Drug Use

When injection drug users discard their needles outside, it’s called syringe pollution, and it’s becoming an increasing problem across California. One child reportedly thought a syringe she found outside was a thermometer and put it in her mouth. Another child stepped on a needle at a beach in Santa Cruz – one of about a dozen accidental sticks reported in the area – and these are just a few of the instances that have been reported. It is likely that rates of needle sticks are far higher due to a lack of reporting.  

Exposure to needles can mean exposure to HIV or hepatitis, not just for those who use them purposefully to get high but for anyone who comes into contact with infected needles. Additionally, if there is any drug residue or remnants in the needle, small kids who are exposed could experience a medical emergency as a result.  

Even if there is no exposure to drugs or disease, those who are accidentally stuck by a needle must undergo a number of tests to make sure they are okay.  

It is a problem that is growing exponentially in California, along with rates of heroin abuse, addiction, and overdose. In March of this year, in San Francisco, 13,000+ syringes were collected. In March 2016, that number was less than 3,000.  

Why Drug Syringes are a Problem

Needles are found at public parks, on beaches, on the sidewalk, in wooded areas, in homeless camps, in bodies of water, and in isolated locations where people use them to get high when they have nowhere else to go. The needles may be left behind in order to avoid reuse, having no other place to dispose of them properly, in an effort to avoid prosecution for carrying them, or as a result of negligence.    

It is frustrating for communities who want and need safe places for their children, animals, and residents to play and relax. But it is indicative of a growing underlying problem of untreated addiction and mental health disorders that can no longer be ignored.  

What Next?

A number of communities are lucky enough to have nonprofit organizations that have been developed for the sole purpose of finding and collecting used needles from public spaces. However, these are overwhelmed by the job, and they are not available everywhere.  

There are also a number of clean needle exchanges, especially in cities like Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. These offer people the opportunity to bring in used needles and exchange them for clean ones. The idea is to provide a one-to-one exchange so people are encouraged not to discard their used needles unsafely. Many even hand out small heavy-duty plastic safe needle bins to fill up and return if they live in a location with others who also need a safe drop. These are helpful as well, but they are not available everywhere, and they cannot keep up with the demand.  

Some have suggested that “safe injection locations” are the best option. Currently available in Canada and proposed in California and a number of US cities, the concept is that if there is a safe place for people to inject drugs, then there will also be a safe place to dispose of used needles, clean needles available to cut down on disease transmission and healthcare costs, and regular exposure to resources for treatment.  

Addiction and Treatment

All of these harm reduction options are just that – harm “reduction.” They do not erase the harm to the community, to the individual, or to families. The only way to effectively ensure against all the harm that comes with injection drug use is to connect the individual in crisis with treatment that will help them to stop using all substances of abuse safely and then give them the resources they need to rebuild a new life in recovery.  

For many, this means:  

  • Medical detox, often including medication-assisted treatment 
  • Personal assessment and evaluation 
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders 
  • Long-term aftercare and connection with recovery services 

Increased availability of and access to effective treatment services will go a long way toward helping to impact the heroin addiction and overdose problem in California.  

What do you think should be done to continue to improve the situation and decrease the harm of injection drug use?  

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