'A double problem': Needle exchanges fight disease, but stray syringes raise alarm

'A double problem': Needle exchanges fight disease, but stray syringes raise alarm

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The success of Utah's needle exchanges comes at a price.

The programs approved by the Legislature last year help prevent hepatitis C and HIV for users of heroin and prescription opioids. But the dirty needles are turning up in public places as the Utah programs distribute 16,000 free, clean syringes each week, mostly in the Rio Grande area, health officials say.

"It creates a double problem," said Heather Bush, syringe exchange coordinator for the Utah Department of Health, in an interview earlier this week. "Nobody wants to go to a playground or even just walk down the sidewalk and see a used needle."

Bush says few people are pricked by stray syringes, but bloody or used ones can transmit diseases that can take weeks or months to appear.

In February, police said a 6-year-old Orem girl was stuck by a needle she found on a playground at an elementary school. Officers believe it was likely left by a drug user, Lt. Craig Martinez said at the time.

About 1 in 4 of the needles handed out on the streets are returned. Health officers believe users are tossing the dirty ones in the garbage or on the ground out of fear they'll be prosecuted: It's illegal to have needles intended to shoot illicit drugs.

The number of discarded needles has climbed over the past year.

Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said his employees in years past bought syringe waste containers a few times a year and would end up with roughly 15 annually.

"We're now going through five to 10 of those a month," he said.

His employees are on track to collect 10,000 to 18,000 needles cast aside in parks, sidewalks and gutters this year.

Edwards' department regularly cleans abandoned lots, homeless camps and a stretch of 500 West near the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, where it routinely finds the used syringes, Edwards said.


County estimates on the cost of cleaning the area and disposing of the needles were not immediately available.

It's not just county crews who work to pick up the needles in Utah. Some community-led cleanup crews are on-call, including Sharps Clean Up, which respond to calls identifying "trouble spots" in neighborhoods.

The exchanges do more than just hand out needles, Edwards notes.

They're important because they also give out information about where people can go for treatment when they're ready, and give instructions on how to be as clean as possible, he said.

Utah is far from the first state to introduce such programs. More than 30 states have either needle exchanges or government-sanctioned safe spaces to shoot up.

But some law enforcement officers say the exchanges are cause for concern even though they limit disease among users.

Brian Besser, the Drug Enforcement Administration's district agent in charge, said he believes the programs may encourage illicit drug use and believes the strewn needles are a pressing public health problem.


"The other side of the coin is people not struggling with addiction, and I don't want them being exposed to the fringe hazards of it," Besser said.

Besser said his agents routinely find the needles in Salt Lake City, especially in the Rio Grande neighborhood, though his agency doesn't track the discoveries.

His agency is targeting the supply of heroin and the powerful fentanyl from cartels he says are preying on Utah's homeless population.

The challenges of the programs are not lost on Bush, who said she's working to communicate to users, advocates and anyone who comes across the needles just how important it is to dispose of them properly. Safe ways to toss them include putting them in plastic bleach bottles, laundry detergent bottles, or other hefty, plastic containers, then in the trash, she said.

"We're trying to get people to be clean," she said, "but we also need to be encouraging them to turn them back in."

Contributing: Associated Press

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