Safe needle disposal program expanding in Aroostook County

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 7:20 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A unique program initiated in Caribou earlier this year that provides for the safe disposal of medical needles and other sharps was expanded to Presque Isle on Wednesday. Organizers of the event said the program could become a model for other agencies across the state.

During a brief ceremony Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of the Presque Isle Police Department, officials with Cary Medical Center in Caribou, the Maine Community Foundation, the Presque Isle Kiwanis Club and the Police Department officially kicked off the expanded safe sharps disposal program.

The Maine Community Foundation tapped into its Aroostook County Fund to donate $3,000 to Cary Medical Center for the purchase of a state-of-the-art kiosk to provide for the safe disposal of medical sharps, which is the technical term for needles, syringes and lancets. The kiosk now sits in the lobby of the Presque Isle Police Department. The Presque Isle Kiwanis Club also donated funding to help purchase the kiosk.

According to state health statistics, there are about 6,000 people in Aroostook County who use medical sharps to treat illnesses such as diabetes. More than 12 million injections by sharps are completed each year in Maine. The state has guidelines in place for the disposal of medical sharps, but until eight months ago there was no formal program in place in Aroostook County that gave residents one place where they could go to quickly and safely dispose of used needles and syringes.

In February, Cary Medical Center used a $3,500 gift from the Caribou Rotary Club to purchase a sharps disposal kiosk that was placed at the Caribou Police Department. The department reported high use of the kiosk, which prompted the expansion to Presque Isle.

The kiosks in both cities are equipped with a number of safety features. Each kiosk 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 is removed and secured and the contents picked up by a medical waste disposal company. The waste then will be incinerated.

People who drop off sharps also can access free personal sharps disposal containers.

Lisa Prescott, a laboratory technician at Cary Medical Center, helped create the sharps disposal program in The County. She said Wednesday she was “so pleased and grateful” to the Maine Community Foundation for the funding and to the Police Department for agreeing to host the kiosk.

“We now have both the Caribou and Presque Isle police departments providing a great community service and we have had other communities express interest in this as well,” she said.

Prescott pushed for a safe disposal program after encountering a number of disposal practices that presented risks for accidental needle sticks.

Under state regulations, 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 through 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. Such factors have pushed people to dump sharps in public buildings, on playgrounds and in department store restrooms.

Bill Flagg, director of community relations and development for Cary Medical Center, said that officials in Houlton and Washburn have expressed interest in participating in the program. He said that state officials initially were skeptical that the pilot site in Caribou could serve as a statewide model for other locations but its success has caused them to take a second look.

Project organizers said the Presque Isle 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 also have offered to pick up filled personal sharps disposal containers for shut-ins who contact the department.

Presque Isle Police Chief Matt Irwin said that such a program “really makes sense” to him.

“We haven’t had many cases here where people have reported being stuck by a needle,” said Irwin, but he recalled a case while he was working in Florida in which an officer suffered an accidental needle stick and contracted a life threatening illness. He eventually died.

Irwin said there is a lack of education on safe sharp disposal.

“Now we can address that issue while at the same time protecting the public,” he said. “It is such a simple idea, and simple ideas generally get good results.”

John Pelletier, a board member of the Aroostook County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, said that the foundation sees the program as “a very positive development in helping to improve overall public safety.”

Irwin said the city will bear some expense related to the project but it is expected to be minimal. The chief said that he will absorb the cost into his department’s budget this year.

Cary Medical Center also partnered with the Northern Maine Development Commission to secure a $3,000 grant to develop public service announcements to educate the public on safe sharps disposal.

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