CARIBOU, Maine — According to state health statistics, there are about 6,000 people in Aroostook County who use needles, lancets or syringes — also known as medical sharps — to treat illnesses such as diabetes.
In Maine, more than 12 million injections by sharps are completed each year. The state has guidelines in place for the disposal of medical sharps, but officials at Cary Medical Center in Caribou said Monday that there has been no formal program in place in Aroostook County, no one place where everyone could go to quickly and safely dispose of used needles and syringes — until now.
With the help of a $3,500 gift from the Caribou Rotary Club, the hospital has bought a state-of-the-art kiosk to provide for the safe disposal of medical sharps. The kiosk, part of what the hospital is calling a “first in the state” program, now sits at the Caribou Police Department.
The kiosk was designed by Chrysalis, an environmental services company, and is equipped with a number of safety features. It has a light indicating when the unit is close to full and an automatic locking system that prevents people from placing material in it when the unit is full.
When the unit does become full, the interior container will be removed and secured and the contents picked up by Oxus, a medical waste disposal company. The waste will then be incinerated at the Oxus facility in Pittsfield.
Lisa Prescott, a medical laboratory technologist at Cary, spearheaded the year long effort to secure the kiosk.
The state has requirements in place for disposing of sharps. People who use syringes and lancets at home, the office or elsewhere are required to place discarded sharps in rigid containers that are resistant to leaks and punctures. Preferred containers are made of heavy plastic and have screw-on caps, such as liquid laundry soap bottles.
Once these containers are full they may be placed in the trash or taken to a hospital that accepts biomedical waste. Users also can contract with a state Department of Environmental Protection licensed biomedical waste transporter to pick up biomedical waste at their home. Maine law also allows discarded sharps to be mailed via the United States Postal Service to properly permitted treatment or disposal sites.
Some hospitals charge a fee for sharps disposal, however, and there also is a cost with mailing. A few towns also prohibit the disposal of household biomedical waste at their solid waste facilities.
“What we wanted to do was give people one safe, secure place to bring their sharps and to keep more sharps out of local landfills,” Bill Flagg, director of community relations and development for Cary Medical Center, said Monday. “We could find no other program like the one we have just created in the state.”
People who dispose of their needles and syringes at the Caribou Police Department also can pick up personal sharps containers to take back home. They will be provided at no cost to users and will also be available at Pines Health Services physicians’ offices, the Cary Diabetes Education Program and other area locations.
Project organizers said that the police department was chosen because officials wanted to have a location that was available at all times and that was monitored, safe and accessible. Police have also offered to pick up filled personal sharps disposal containers for shut-ins who contact the department.
As part of the project, officials also will conduct a major educational program over the coming year to make area residents more aware of the safe disposal program and to stress the importance of using the safe disposal practice.
Flagg said that the issue of sharps disposal is a critical environmental and safety problem.
“Each year some 600,000 to 800,000 sharps related injuries occur in the United States,” he said. “Many needle sticks go unnoticed and unreported. These can lead to life threatening liver disease or liver cancer as well as long term chronic disease. Children are particularly at risk and may not report needle sticks to parents due to a lack of understanding of the seriousness of these incidents. Injuries caused by sharps can put the victims at risk for HIV, Hepatitis B or C, tetanus or other contagions.”
Mark Draper, president of the Caribou Rotary, said he was very pleased that the club chose the Sharps Disposal Project as one of its major community projects in 2010.
“The use of medical sharps is on the increase, and it is important that as a community we find a safe way to dispose of them,” said Draper, who is director of the Tri-Community Landfill. “Improper disposal of sharps can place unsuspecting individuals at risk and is a particular hazard for sanitation workers, health-care workers, police and others. Sharps are showing up in restaurant rest rooms, public parks, beaches and other locations. This program will help to provide a safe and accessible disposal program and will educate the public on the safe way to dispose of these hazardous waste products.”
Caribou Police Chief Mike Gahagan said that people who improperly dispose of medical sharps can be charged with littering. He said Monday that he feels the city will benefit from the new project. Just last week, he said, two juveniles who were playing in a snowbank found a needle, and he said that the city has heard reports of them being found by road repair crews.
“It is one of those things that no one really reports,” he said. “Most people who see one disposed of improperly just ignore it, and if they are stuck accidentally, they go to the hospital or to their physician for help.”
The disposal project has already become popular, according to Gahagan. The project was launched on Feb. 23, and by the end of that day, the kiosk was half full. The kiosk is now three-quarters full.
“We originally had planned to have the kiosk emptied in April, but we have scheduled it for March because of the demand,” Flagg said Monday.
The next step in the project is to purchase a second kiosk for the Presque Isle Police Department, which has also offered to serve as a host site. The Presque Isle Kiwanis Club has provided funds to help support the project, but more dollars are needed.
For more information about the program, log on to www.carymedicalcenter.org or call the community relations office at 498-1376.