Earlier this fall, Mansion Church Pastor Terry Dinkins decided to organize a cleanup of Bangor’s parks and walking trails. So on Oct. 1, he and a group of roughly 35 volunteers collected thousands of used syringes that littered the ground.
“It opened my eyes to how bad the situation really is — I didn’t expect that many needles,” Dinkins said. “I think it’s terrible. These are in our parks and walking trails, and we need to do something.”
Dinkins’ clean-up event offered a snapshot of the growing amount of used syringe waste the city has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the city’s homeless population — including many with substance use problems — has grown. Though Bangor has 10 needle collection boxes scattered around the city, thousands of syringes are still ending up on the ground in public spaces and throughout the city’s homeless encampments.
Now, Bangor’s public health department wants to collaborate with state government and the organizations that distribute sterile syringes to reduce the used needles around Bangor, which poses a public health risk in addition to being an eyesore.
The city wants help to craft a plan to address the proliferation of discarded needles, especially as the city’s cleanup costs have risen, said Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s public health director. That plan could involve more funding for the program that distributes sterile needles so they have more resources to clean them up.
“The goal is to bring attention to the issue and get action from the state government to recognize that it is an issue,” she said. “My hope is that they consider fully funding the syringe services programs to do that work. It’s a complicated societal problem, and it’s going to take all of us to solve it.”
Maine has 18 programs licensed to distribute sterile needles and other harm reduction supplies, such as naloxone and fentanyl test strips. Distributing clean needles is a harm reduction tactic because it protects those who use drugs from contracting bloodborne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, from used or shared contaminated syringes.
In Bangor, the Health Equity Alliance and Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness are licensed to distribute syringes and other harm reduction materials, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“We are also providing a safe place for people without shame and judgment,” said Jennifer Sinclair, the Health Equity Alliance’s harm reduction program supervisor. “Creating this atmosphere for people who use drugs and showing them that they deserve to be heard gives them more of a chance to enter treatment.”
Gov. Janet Mills temporarily lifted the requirement that syringe exchange programs collect one used syringe for every clean syringe they hand out from March 2020 to August 2021, during the state’s pandemic civil emergency. That allowed people to continue receiving clean syringes while coming into contact with others less often to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Today, the Health Equity Alliance encourages a one-for-one exchange, but state rules allow the group to give someone up to 100 new needles if they have no used syringes to trade in, Sinclair said.
“COVID brought a lot of things to us, and everyone did their best to meet the needs of people who use drugs to keep them safe,” Hamilton said. “What we saw as a result of that is more needle waste seemed to be developing in our community. This consequence wasn’t envisioned, but it’s here and we’re trying to adapt.”
Maine’s syringe distribution programs gave out nearly 2.4 million sterile needles last year and collected more than 1.7 million used ones, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Health Equity Alliance’s Bangor distribution site was the busiest in the state, handing out almost 794,000 clean needles and collecting and disposing of almost 618,000.
Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness only became certified as a syringe distribution program in February 2021, according to the Maine CDC.
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Bangor’s Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments will safely dispose of used needles found in public places, Hamilton said, and the city offers the 10 community disposal boxes. Bangor, however, has to pay the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to collect those boxes, and that cost has risen in tandem with the increasing litter.
“The cost varies on the weight of the box, and the amount and weight of the needles we’re picking up has increased, so the burden to the municipality has risen quite a bit,” Hamilton said. “It would be helpful if we could work with the state to figure out a plan for that.”
The Maine CDC and Bangor Public Health are working with the city’s syringe distribution programs to explore solutions, said Jackie Farwell, a Maine CDC spokesperson.
“As we continue to explore solutions, syringe service programs are increasing their outreach in the region to help address this concern,” she said. “Syringe service programs provide an important public health service and have been proven to reduce the spread of viruses like HIV and hepatitis C.”
The Health Equity Alliance’s harm reduction team does community cleanups and will help residents safely dispose of needles found on private property, Sinclair said. The organization also empties biohazard sharps boxes held at multiple local businesses.
“We also offer training for anyone willing to learn about harm reduction, which includes education on our disposal process of syringes,” Sinclair said. “Anyone can come to exchange and use the safe disposal system we have or request a sharps container.”