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Residents raise concerns about discarded needles, public health workers say harm reduction programs part of solution

Community volunteers in Cambridge have begun collecting used needles amid growing concerns about injection drug use in the area. Discarded syringes are seen in an October 2017 handout photo in Cambridge, Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mary Jane Sherman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Community volunteers in Cambridge have begun collecting used needles amid growing concerns about injection drug use in the area. Discarded syringes are seen in an October 2017 handout photo in Cambridge, Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mary Jane Sherman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

As harm reduction programs grow across the country, providing clean needles to drug users, residents in some communities are calling on local governments to do more to clean up public spaces where they say discarded syringes are posing a risk.

Volunteers in various cities have taken to cleaning up parks and laneways where the drug paraphernalia has been found, with some suggesting needle exchange efforts are contributing to the issue. But public health workers and experts say such programs are in fact part of the solution.

In Moncton, N.B., and Brantford, Ont., volunteers have been going out with rubber gloves and garbage bags to pick up the drug paraphernalia, while in Cambridge, Ont., a handful of residents have taken to social media recently, posting photos of needles found in their neighbourhoods in an effort to call attention to what they say is a growing problem.

"We wanted to know where they were, what was going on," said Mary Jane Sherman, co-founder of the Facebook group A Cleaner Cambridge. "Volunteers started coming forward to do cleanups. Everyone was just so angry about it ... This is not a safe environment for our kids to grow up in."

Sherman said local harm reduction programs are contributing to syringes being found in public areas.

But public health experts say harm reduction programs are part of the solution when it comes to dealing with discarded needles.

"I'd be concerned if I found a needle in my community, and if I didn't know a lot about the programs I might make assumptions about where the needle came from and how many there are," said Carol Strike, a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. "(But) the programs that I've worked with across the country ... don't want needles in the community either. That's why they exist, not only to give out needles, but to dispose of them properly,"

The number of discarded needles found in a community may rise or fall from time to time, but harm reduction staff generally respond with cleanup "sweeps" and increased efforts on syringe collection, Strike said.

"Over time, some programs actually collect more needles than they give out," she said.

In Moncton, where a community group known as the Needle Dogs has been collecting stray syringes for a decade, harm reduction workers in the city say the return rate of used needles is high.

AIDS Moncton distributes nearly 200,000 needles to over 600 people per year, said executive director Debby Warren. Each month, between 75 and 90 per cent of those needles are returned safely to the organization, she said.

"We give them containers (to put needles in) and they bring them back, and we also have a drop-off box and that's available to them 24-7," she added. 

Further west, Vancouver Coastal Health, the public agency that provides health care to a quarter of British Columbia's population, offers needle exchanges and safe injection sites for intravenous drug users.

To help keep used needles off the streets, Vancouver Coastal Health runs a mobile needle exchange program and a hotline where members of the public can report needles they see in their community. The health agency also has over 40 needle disposal boxes in parks and laneways around the city, and funds regular "community sweeps," said spokesman Gavin Wilson.

While the growth of harm reduction practices has led to more discarded needles being found in Vancouver — most of them in alleyways on the city's downtown east side — the advent of needle distribution programs in the mid-2000s has also contributed to a dramatic decline in HIV cases among B.C.'s injection drug users, Wilson said.

"While we understand the frustration of community members when they come across discarded needles, the risk to the public is extremely low," Wilson said. "No one (to our knowledge) has ever acquired HIV, or any other pathogen, from a needle-stick injury from a discarded needle in a park or any other public place in Vancouver."

In Cambridge, in response to the concerns of groups like Sherman's, the city has expanded its needle collection services, soliciting reports of discarded syringes on public and private property around town.

"No matter where the needle is found ... residents can now call us directly for assistance," said city spokeswoman Susanne Hiller. "Even if the location is a road or laneway that technically (aren't under City) jurisdiction, we will co-ordinate the clean up as quickly and efficiently as possible."

The city's mayor has also launched a task force to address opioid addiction in the area, while regional public health officials are working toward opening safe injection sites, Hiller said. 

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