These two syringes were found in a BDN reporter and photographer front yard in Portland last week. The city handed out nearly 200,000 free needles in 2018, mostly to opioid drug users.  Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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.

First, if you see needles in a park or on the street, you can call the Department of Public Works.

“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.

Citywide community collection boxes

Instead of throwing needles in the trash, you can also take them to one of the city’s 16 community sharps collection boxes.

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.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

“We started with ten boxes and purchased more over the years as we’ve gotten more requests,” said Zoe Brokos, a health promotion specialist at the needle exchange. “Our goal was to provide a safe place, and a responsible way, for people to dispose of discarded syringes in the community.”

As part of a sweeping harm-reduction strategy, the city-run needle exchange program hands out free injection supplies and takes in used needles. It also offers overdose prevention education, naloxone as well as HIV, Hepatitis and STD tests. Referrals to drug treatment programs are available on request.

The numbers are rising

The Portland needle exchange is one of seven in the state. Last year it distributed just shy of 200,000 needles. That number is up from the previous two years. It’s the only needle exchange south of Lewiston.

“We see people from all over York and Cumberland Counties, as well as central and coastal Maine,” said Brokos. “We saw just under a thousand individuals in our needle exchange program last year. The majority of those people reported opioid use being the primary substance they were using.”

In 2018, the needle exchange distributed 199,439 syringes. That’s up from 173,219 in 2017 and 152,512 in 2016.

According to state reports, Bangor’s needle exchange handed out even more. It distributed 261,698 syringes in 2018.

Portland’s needle exchange reports collecting more needles than it distributed in each of the last three years: 204,259 in 2018, 186,189 in 2017 and 158,537 in 2017.

Those numbers are separate from what public works picks up off the streets and collects in the sharps boxes around town.

Portland city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said public works collected 2,230 needles in 2018. They’ve picked up 895 so far in 2019. That’s up from 795 at the same time last year.

Even though the numbers of needles distributed has risen every year, Brokos isn’t sure that’s the reason the number of needles collected has also gone up.

“As with any public health educational campaign, it’s hard to gauge if the number is increasing because there’s more [needle using] activity or is the number increasing because there’s more awareness of the containers, themselves,” said Brokos. “I do believe, from talking to people in the community that have accessed the boxes, that it has really been an awareness issue — just making people aware these boxes exist and we want people to use them. We’ve seen a steady increase in people accessing them.”

‘There could be more education’

Now I know what to do when I find a needle in my yard or on the street. Still, I’ll probably be a little freaked out. Like many people, I’m squeamish of needles even in the hands of a doctor or nurse. It’s quite a jolt to find one on the ground.

“It’s a perfectly normal response to not feel comfortable with it. I think there’s varying levels of understanding and education about what to do. There could be more education all the way around,” said Brokos. “If you find one. You don’t need to be scared of it. We just want to make sure there are resources available.”

Now I’m aware of the resources. I took the needles I found in my yard to the sharps collection box by the playground at Deering Oaks Park. It’s part of living in this age, in this city.

“I get it. I’ve got three kids. I’m glad we have resources like this because I can confidently send my kids to the playground,” said Brokos. “But yeah [finding one] is startling.”

If you have needles to discard, you can find the Portland community sharps collection boxes at these locations around the city:

Credit: Courtesy City of Portland

Logan Place, 52 Frederic St., boxes are located in medical areas and common area bathrooms

Florence House, 190 Valley St., boxes are located in common area bathrooms

Western Prom, attached to Big Belly solar trash can

Bramhall Fire Station, 784 Congress St., inside station

Deering Oaks Park, attached to Big Belly solar trash can at playground

Preble Street Resource Center, 5 Portland St., inside day room bathrooms

Oxford Street Shelter, 203 Oxford St., in the courtyard

Bayside Trail, at the intersection of Chestnut and Somerset Streets, attached to Big Belly solar trash can

Stone Street Playground, at the intersection of Oxford Street and Stone Streets, attached to Big Belly solar trash can

Peppermint Park, at the intersection of Cumberland Avenue and Smith Street, attached to Big Belly solar trash can

India Street Public Health and Needle Exchange Program, 103 India Street, inside exam rooms and needle exchange program

Munjoy Hill Fire Station, 134 Congress Street, inside station

East End Beach, at the beach entrance, attached to Big Belly solar trash can

Harbor View Park, on Tyng Street, attached to Big Belly solar trash cans

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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.