“Opidemic” causes syringe pollution

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Eyes are on the country’s opioid epidemic once again after President Donald Trump declared the issue a national emergency on Aug. 10.

As used syringes become a pollution and opioid-related public health hazard across the United States, some Utah counties have been experiencing the problem more than others.

Utah is all too familiar with the “opidemic” sweeping the nation. Haunting television ads and straightforward billboards from the Stop the Opidemic campaign have been raising awareness about opioid ills since the beginning of 2017. Six Utahns die every week from opioid overdose, according to Stop the Opidemic’s website.

According to an Associated Press article, used syringes are causing problems from Maine to California. Although Utah County has not had a large problem with the issue, Salt Lake County has.

When a used syringe is left lying around, individuals are at risk of being poked and infected with blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or HIV. They could also be exposed to remnants of the drug the needle was used for, according to the Associated Press article.

Provo Parks and Recreation and the Orem Parks Division said the problem with used syringes being left to lie around and potentially stick people is minimal.

Utah Harm Reduction Coalition volunteers Damon Harris and Rena Rogers look for improperly disposed syringes in the Rio Grande area in Salt Lake on August 8. Syringe pollution is becoming a rampant health and pollution risk across the nation. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Utah County Health Department public information officer Aislynn Tolman-Hill confirmed Utah County has not yet seen a big problem with syringe pollution.

“From time to time we do get some calls or comments through our website here at the Health Department from folks that will come across needles in random places,” Tolman-Hill said. “And they need some guidance or some kind of direction on what to do.”

Tolman-Hill said this usually only happens three or four times a year.

Individuals who find needles are advised to wear thick leather or work gloves and use a shovel or pliers to put distance between themselves and the syringe. It is also recommended they use an item like a thick juice bottle to contain the needle. There are no guidelines on what to do past the point of containment, so the bottle can be thrown away in the trash, Tolman-Hill said.

She also said the Utah County Health Department has not been working to decrease needle production, and there are no regulations at this time regarding needle pollution for the public.

Utah Harm Reduction Coalition volunteer Damon Harris picks up syringes in Salt Lake on August 8. Utah County could face a syringe problem in the future similar to Salt Lake’s. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Nicholas Rupp, the Salt Lake County Health Department communication coordinator, said the department receives a similar amount of calls about syringes.

Rupp said syringes are picked up during general community cleanups headed by the Salt Lake County Health Department.

The Utah Harm Reduction Coalition conducts community cleanups multiple times each week to pick up discarded syringes.

Mindy Vincent, executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, also runs a syringe exchange program in multiple locations across Utah.

“We serve at least 150 people at every exchange in two hours,” Vincent said of the syringe exchange in the Rio Grande area in Salt Lake.

People who come to the syringe exchange are able to exchange dirty needles for a free kit containing new needles.

Vincent said the syringe exchange decreases the amount of needle pollution.

“We really want to work with all of our participants to be disposing properly,” she said. “When you give people sharps containers and the ability to make healthy choices, they do.”

Utah Harm Reduction Coalition volunteer Damon Harris picks up a syringe in Salt Lake on August 8. Syringe pollution is a side effect of Utah’s opioid epidemic. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Vincent said at the Coalition’s Tooele location, more syringes are returned than are given out.

According to a KSL.com article, Utah County will look more like Salt Lake County in 50 years. If this is the case, Utah County’s drug problems could become similar to Salt Lake’s.

After all, Utah County is still being affected by the opidemic.

Utah Valley Hospital spokesperson Janet Frank said 721 opioid overdose victims have gone to Utah Valley Hospital for treatment between August 2015 and August 2017. The lowest amount of cases per month, which was 15, was in August 2015. The highest amount of cases per month, 48, was in April 2017.

According to Tolman-Hill, it is a real possibility that the needle pollution problem will come to Utah County.

Used syringes await disposal after being cleaned up in the Salt Lake area on Aug. 8. Utah County does not currently have a problem with syringe pollution like Salt Lake does. (Savannah Hopkinson)

“Right now I don’t think we have a real solid plan in place for what exactly would happen if we find ourself in that position,” Tolman-Hill said.

Tolman-Hill said if needle pollution does become a problem, fighting back will take the help of the Health Department’s law enforcement and substance abuse partners.

“Hopefully we can start to do some things early on to tell when things are starting to shift in a direction that we don’t want to see them go,” she said.

Tolman-Hill said it is unfortunate that such little objects cause such a big hassle.

“We’re happy that we don’t seem to have a big problem with it at this point in Utah County,” Tolman-Hill said. “We’re certainly going to be staying in touch with our partners to keep a pulse on this issue.”