PORTLAND, Maine — My wife and I came home the other night and found two used hypodermic needles in our front yard. The empty, capped syringes lay in some crushed rocks by the porch. Evidently, someone tossed them there while walking by on the sidewalk.
Despite being a long-time Portland peninsula resident — who has seen many needles on the street — I wasn’t sure what to do with them. But like any good newspaper reporter, I knew how to find out. I started asking questions.
That led to a set of useful instructions on what to do the next time I find a used needle in my yard. I also learned of the staggering number of needles that are distributed, and collected, every year in this city.
Since 2017, Portland has handed out more than a half million free needles.That’s in a city of less than 75,000 residents. Most have gone to opioid drug users. The free injection supplies are part of a broad, harm-reduction strategy that aims to halt the spread of bloodborne diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
The numbers of clients and needles mirrors the growing opioid crisis. It’s rising every year.
With that many syringes in circulation — distributed by the city alone — you might expect to find heaps of them on every street corner. But at the same time, Portland has made significant efforts to keep its streets, parks and playgrounds free of used syringes.
There are more than a dozen community needle collection boxes placed all over the city. Public works collects them off the ground when reported, as well. The free needle program also reports that it collects more needles than it distributes every year.
What to do when you find one
If you find a used hypodermic needle in Portland, there’s several ways you can deal with it.
“If you call, public works will come and get them pretty quickly,” said Bridget Rauscher, Portland’s substance abuse prevention program coordinator. “Somebody with the proper protective gear will pick it up.”
You can call public works directly, or report the needle on the city’s popular SeeClickFix website.
“That’s become probably one of the more popular ways and we’ve gotten pretty good feedback on how quickly those are retrieved,” said Rauscher.
One of my neighbors, Sarah Delage, recently found a used needle at the bottom of her recycling bin.
“I called public works,” said Delage, “and they sent someone that day to take care of it. It was totally painless, which was a pleasant surprise.”
Another option is taking care of the needle yourself. If it appears on your property, it’s your only option. Public Works only takes care of public spaces like streets, sidewalks and parks.
Rauscher recommends you wear gloves and only handle the needle in the middle, staying well away from the pointy end. Then, place it in a puncture-proof container like a laundry detergent or soda bottle. Once it’s sealed, it’s a good idea to label it “biohazard” before throwing it in the trash.
The locked boxes are usually found bolted to trash can in city parks and along recreational trails. A few are also at fire stations and in public housing.
They first appeared in the city in 2015 in response to the burgeoning opioid crisis and increasing number of discarded needles showing up in public parks. The boxes are a joint effort between the Portland Needle Exchange Program, the Department of Public Works and city public safety officials.
Troy R. Bennett
Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.
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