By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Discarded hypodermic needles can be found in school playgrounds, basketball courts, public parks and other places children play and exercise.
They pose a significant risk to public safety and shine a troubling light on one of the most pressing issues facing law enforcement and city officials — the spread of cheap and easy-to-obtain heroin and the growing number of addicts shooting up in public places.
Acknowledging the problem has apparently reached a new high, city officials and departments are in the midst of a full-court educational campaign alerting residents of the dangers these needles present and steps to remove them safely should they find them.
The city’s Department of Health has sent out a public health advisory urging residents and those visiting the city to properly dispose of needles, syringes and lancets, also known as “sharps.” A major fear, according to Robert Bracey, public health director, is the danger to children or those unaware of the risk of picking up a contaminated needle.
“It is a real health and safety issue when people improperly dispose of ‘sharps’ and used needles,” Bracey said.
Contaminated needles can injure people and spread infections that cause serious health conditions including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. Those who are accidentally stuck by a used needle should wash the wounded area immediately using water and soap or use a skin disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. Immediately after, it’s important to seek medical attention by calling a physician or local hospital, according to the health department.
As a way of minimizing the risk, last weekend inmates from the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton swept the city’s parks of all discarded needles, according to Mayor Donna Holaday.
“We’re at zero baseline as of now,” Holaday said yesterday.
On Nov. 4, Holaday will be leading a forum at 7 p.m. at City Hall addressing used heroin needles being spotted inside playgrounds. Among those expected to attend what Holaday named “A Critical Community Conversation on Heroin Use” are Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, Newburyport Director of Youth and Recreational Services Andi Egmont, Newburyport police Marshal Thomas Howard and Newburyport School Superintendent Susan Viccaro.
The announcement of the forum comes just about a week after police arrested a handful of known heroin dealers after a months-long investigation into their methods and their customers. In harrowing detail, court records show that many of the transactions were being conducted in places frequented by children, including public parks, the city’s rail trail and business parking lots.
Among the most troubling incidents allegedly took place in September when three people were arrested and charged with heroin possession by Newburyport police for allegedly shooting up in a wooded area behind Graf Rink. Earlier that month, police inspectors watched as two Merrimac-based heroin dealers sold drugs to one of the people arrested by police behind Graf Rink, on the city’s rail trail, according to court records.
The two Merrimac residents were arrested by police, along with a Salisbury man, also known to sell heroin within city limits, last week.
‘It’s very very concerning,” Holaday said, regarding the swell of heroin use reported in the city.
Holaday said the community forum is the culmination of an active endeavor to combat heroin use and the aftermath that discarded needles represent.
In mid-September, Holaday received the first of many phone calls from residents around Perkins Playground who were shocked to find discarded needles there. Coupled with last month’s news from Amesbury, where a mother walked into a Town Park bathroom to find a 40-year-old woman sprawled on the floor in the middle of a heroin overdose, Holaday reached out to Blodgett’s office regarding a public forum.
In the meantime, Holaday attended a neighborhood meeting for Perkins Playground residents organized by Ward 1 Councilor Alison Heartquist that drew about 35 families. Also in attendance were Howard and Department of Public Works Director Tony Furnari. At that meeting, officials discussed the possibility of adding more street lights near the playground to make it less appealing to those looking to deal or shoot up. Video cameras and motion-activated sensor lights were also discussed, said Holaday.
According to Howard, Perkins Playground residents have expressed an interest in forming a neighborhood watch group and will be meeting with a police officer soon to come up with strategies on how to best patrol their area. The officer, Howard added, would continue to work as a liaison between the neighborhood and the police department.
But Howard stressed that the concerns felt by Perkins Playground residents are felt by residents citywide and that as long as the possession of needles is legal, he fears discarded needles will continue to be dumped in locations across the city. Howard empathized with the desire by lawmakers to stop the spread of diseases related to shared needle use, but by decriminalizing the possession of needles, he said it sends the wrong message to those who abuse drugs.
The City Health Department advises the public to avoid potential injury by taking the following precautionary steps when disposing of a found needle:
Use tongs or pliers to pick up the needle.
Place the needle in a hard plastic container (e.g., an empty peanut butter jar) with a lid. Avoid using a glass container because it can break.
Label the jar with the word “needle.”
Never throw sharps into household or public trash containers, toilets or recycling bins.
Drop the needles into any of the City Health Department Sharps disposal bins found in various locations around the city:
City Health Department at City Hall, 60 Pleasant St., Newburyport
Council on Aging, 40 Water St., Newburyport