Used Needles Prompt City Leaders to Consider Public Disposal Sites | Off Message

Used Needles Prompt City Leaders to Consider Public Disposal Sites


Bill Ward, Burlington's code enforcement director, sometimes picks up discarded needles. - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Bill Ward, Burlington's code enforcement director, sometimes picks up discarded needles.
In April, Burlington’s public library locked its restrooms after used needles clogged the toilets, and in June, the waterfront shelter followed suit. Now the public safety committee (made up of city councilors) and the board of health (made up of citizens) are considering setting up public sites where people can dispose of their needles. They plan to complete a feasibility study by the fall.

In addition to the two restroom closures, during the last 18 months,  SeeClickFix, Burlington's crowd-sourced app for reporting low-level problems to city officials, documented 32 needle discoveries.

Beyond that, Councilor Selene Colburn (P-Ward 1) said the committee isn't sure of the scope of the problem, but one of their goals is to figure out a way to quantify it. 

Councilor David Hartnett (D-Ward 4), the owner of the Mobile Short Stop in the New North End, said he's observed firsthand an uptick in the needles discovered in his restrooms. He bought a "sharps" container (a catch-all for sharp biowaste products) to dispose of needles he finds. "We used to just put them in Coke bottles or styrofoam cups," he said. 
"I don’t think we have any data to show how many needles are found," Hartnett said. "But I think it’s a bigger problem than people realize," he continued, pointing out that he doesn't report the needles he gets rid of.

Councilor Jane Knodell, who also serves on the public safety committee, said the group wants to increase the number of city employees who are trained to retrieve needles for disposal. To do so, they'll have to sort out some logistical kinks – including potential liability concerns. Right now, Knodell explained, that task falls to Bill Ward, the code enforcement director, or one of his deputies, who will often show up on off-hours to pick up needles reported on SeeClickFix. Police officers are also trained to dispose of any needles they encounter while on patrol.

Colburn said the committee doesn't have a specific disposal system in mind, but one option would be to install safe disposal containers in public restrooms. What will people think of publicly-sanctioned needle boxes? Colburn said they'll be prepared to answer to address any concerns. "I think we certainly recognize there are going to be some questions and, potentially, controversies."

The Howard Center's Safe Recovery program operates a needle exchange program, Monday through Friday, that accepts used needles. Colburn said the committee hasn't reached out to them yet, but plans to.

The committee is encouraging residents who happen upon needles to either call the Howard Center (802-488-6067) or to use the SeeClickFix website.

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