Despite Bangor collecting more needles than it gives out, residents report seeing more dirty syringes littering public spaces than ever.
In this Sept. 15, 2022, file photo, a container for drug needles hangs on a tree in Tent City behind the Hope House in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor’s opioid-driven syringe waste problem is puzzling because the needle distribution and collection numbers don’t support local observations, a state drug official says.

Wabanaki Public Health distributed 140 syringes to six enrollees but collected 256 needles in 2022. The Bangor Health Equity Alliance, meanwhile, distributed 672,000 syringes to 1,094 clients but collected 751,000, said Gordon Smith, Maine’s governor-appointed director of opioid response.

Despite Bangor collecting more needles than it gives out, residents report seeing more dirty needles littering public spaces than ever, presenting environmental and safety risks. Smith said Bangor’s statistics surprised him because he anticipated that the number of syringes distributed would be higher than those collected based on the city’s reports of syringe waste.

Dirty syringes left in public is a problem Bangor has dealt with for several years, even though there is a collection system in place. Police and city leaders often hear from residents who worry about them or their children coming into contact with contaminated needles. The city wants the state’s help to solve the problem.

“If I were you, I’d be asking why we’re finding additional syringes in our public parks, and I think that’s something we all need to work on together,” Smith said. “I can’t see anything in the data that explains why we’re finding more used needles in your public places.”

The Health Equity Alliance and Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness are licensed to distribute syringes and other harm reduction materials to people who deal with substance use disorder, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In the 1990s, the state instituted a one-for-one syringe exchange program in which people could receive one clean syringe for every used needle they turn in.

When the pandemic hit Maine in March 2020, Gov. Janet Mills temporarily lifted that requirement to allow people to continue receiving clean syringes while coming into contact with others less often to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Smith said.

Today, state rules allow needle distribution programs to give a person up to 100 new needles, even if they have no used syringes to exchange, Smith said.

Distributing clean needles protects those who use drugs from contracting bloodborne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, from used or shared contaminated syringes.

In 2022, state syringe providers distributed 2.3 million syringes to more than 7,000 enrollees throughout Maine, but collected about 2.4 million used syringes, according to Smith.

Last year’s statewide syringe tallies also marked an increase over the 2.4 million syringes that were distributed and 1.7 million that were collected in 2021, according to the state’s drug data hub.

“Though I fully support harm reduction efforts, I believe the availability and access to needles has shifted harm from one population onto another,” Bangor Councilor Cara Pelletier said. “I don’t want to stop people from getting the needles they need to use drugs safely. I also don’t want the other thousands of people in Bangor to be stepping on needles, finding needles in lakes and streams and being afraid to go use playground equipment.”  

Smith said there may be an opportunity for the state to offer Bangor a matching grant for cleaning up the city’s syringes or developing a better disposal system.

“I believe there must be an innovative way to get these needles picked up and properly discarded,” Smith said. “With the right policy interventions, this is an easy one to solve.”

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...