Drug-overdose deaths rose 19% in 2016 to 52,000, making drugs the leading killer of American adults under 50. And all evidence suggests these totals have continued to climb in 2017, propelled by the worsening opioid epidemic or the fact that more dangerous opioid analogues like fentanyl and carfentanil are findng their way into the drug supply.
Indeed, the US has a higher rate of drug related deaths than any other developed country in the world. As we’ve reported previously, the epidemic is straining public resources like hospitals, local police departments, and child services which in many states have seen a surge in cases where the parents are addicted to opioids. To that list, we can now add local public health department in areas hit hard by the epidemic, which are struggling to clean up a flood of used and possibly infected needles discarded by addicts.
“They hide in weeds along hiking trails and in playground grass. They wash into rivers and float downstream to land on beaches. They pepper baseball dugouts, sidewalks and streets. Syringes left by drug users amid the heroin crisis are turning up everywhere.
In Portland, Maine, officials have collected more than 700 needles so far this year, putting them on track to handily exceed the nearly 900 gathered in all of 2016. In March alone, San Francisco collected more than 13,000 syringes, compared with only about 2,900 the same month in 2016.”
People, often children, risk getting stuck by discarded needles, raising the prospect they could contract blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or HIV or be exposed to remnants of heroin or other drugs. It's unclear whether anyone has gotten sick, but the reports of children finding the needles can be sickening in their own right. One 6-year-old girl in California mistook a discarded syringe for a thermometer and put it in her mouth; she was unharmed, according to NBC Boston.
“‘I just want more awareness that this is happening,’ said Nancy Holmes, whose 11-year-old daughter stepped on a needle in Santa Cruz, California, while swimming. ‘You would hear stories about finding needles at the beach or being poked at the beach. But you think that it wouldn't happen to you. Sure enough.’
They are a growing problem in New Hampshire and Massachusetts — two states that have seen many overdose deaths in recent years.
‘We would certainly characterize this as a health hazard,’ said Tim Soucy, health director in Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city, which collected 570 needles in 2016, the first year it began tracking the problem. It has found 247 needles so far this year.”
Needles turn up in places like parks, baseball diamonds, trails and beaches, places where drug users can gather and attract little attention. They toss the needles out of carelessness, or the fear of being prosecuted for possessing them. One child was poked by a needle left on the grounds of a Utah elementary school. Another youngster stepped on one while playing on a beach in New Hampshire. Even if these children did't get sick, they still had to endure a battery of tests to make sure they didn't catch anything. The girl who put a syringe in her mouth was not poked but had to be tested for hepatitis B and C, her mother said.
Some community advocates have started helping out, organizing patrols to dispose of illegally discarded needles.
"Rocky Morrison leads a cleanup effort along the Merrimack River, which winds through the old milling city of Lowell, and has recovered hundreds of needles in abandoned homeless camps that dot the banks, as well as in piles of debris that collect in floating booms he recently started setting.
He has a collection of several hundred needles in a fishbowl, a prop he uses to illustrate that the problem is real and that towns must do more to combat it.
'We started seeing it last year here and there. But now, it's just raining needles everywhere we go,' said Morrison, a burly, tattooed construction worker whose Clean River Project has six boats working parts of the 117-mile (188-kilometer) river."
Still, children continue to find, and sometimes accidentally stick themselves with, the discarded needles – it’s another way in which the worsening public-health crisis that is the opioid epidemic disproportionately impacts the young. Some parents in Santa Cruz, Calif. even talk about the first time children find a needle as a rite of passage.
Among the oldest tracking programs is in Santa Cruz, California, where the community group Take Back Santa Cruz has reported finding more than 14,500 needles in the county over the past 4 1/2 years. It says it has gotten reports of 12 people getting stuck, half of them children.
"It's become pretty commonplace to find them. We call it a rite of passage for a child to find their first needle," said Gabrielle Korte, a member of the group's needle team. "It's very depressing. It's infuriating. It's just gross."
Along the Merrimack, nearly three dozen riverfront towns are debating how to stem the flow of needles. Two regional planning commissions are drafting a request for proposals for a cleanup plan. They hope to have it ready by the end of July.
"We are all trying to get a grip on the problem," said Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini. "The stuff comes from somewhere. If we can work together to stop it at the source, I am all for it."
While the crisis’s epicenter is in Ohio and the Rust - opioid-related deaths in Ohio jumped from 296 in 2003 to 2,590 in 2015 - Northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and even Vermont and New Hampshire have been especially hard hit.
In Ohio, resources have been spread so thin that one city council member has proposed a controversial solution: When people who dial 911 seeking help for someone who's overdosing on opioids, they may start hearing something new from dispatchers: “No.” Dan Picard, a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio, population 50,000, floated the idea.
Picard and others have described his proposal as a cry of frustration.
“It’s not a proposal to solve the drug problem,” Picard said this week. “My proposal is in regard to the financial survivability of our city. If we’re spending $2 million this year and $4 million next year and $6 million after that, we’re in trouble. We’re going to have to start laying off. We're going to have to raise taxes,” he told the Washington Post.
But as death tolls rise, and local morgues run out of room for more bodies, Picard's proposal begs the question: What, exactly is our plan for dealing with this crisis?