HAVERHILL — As the Merrimack River becomes a summer playground for boating, water skiing, fishing and other recreational activities, it has also become a potential source of danger.
The Methuen-based Clean River Project found hundreds of syringes floating down the river last year, as well as syringes that washed up along the riverbanks. Leaders of that nonprofit group said they expect to encounter more needles this year and that recreational users of the river may be at risk.
As that organization reaches out to the 15 Massachusetts communities along the river to build support for funding regular river cleanups and trapping floating syringes, officials are warning the public to be wary.
City Recreation Director Vincent Ouellette sees a potential hazard in syringes that might accumulate on the riverbank or be floating in the water. He said they could pose a threat to fishermen, boaters who might step into shallow water, or anyone else who comes in contact with the river.
"Anything that's hazardous waste could pose a health and safety issue," Ouellette said. "People need to take precautions, and if you encounter any syringes, call police to have them safely removed. I would not recommend picking them up."
Mayor James Fiorentini said Trinity EMS, which is contracted to provide ambulance service to the city, will respond to reports of syringes found in parks or other areas that are called in to police. But he said Trinity will not search the riverbanks for syringes.
Fiorentini said he is concerned about people finding used needles anywhere, not just along the river.
"Unfortunately, we find needles everywhere, including parks and along the sidewalks, but we have not received any reports of anyone finding them or getting stuck by a needle along the riverbanks," he said. "Needles are always a concern, but we don't see any more concern along the river than anywhere else.
"If it were Plug Pond, our only beach area, and there were needles showing up, then I'd be very concerned," he said.
Rocky Morrison, president of the Clean River Project, said his volunteers have been finding syringes along the riverbanks for the past several years, including during a cleanup in August of 2015 when they discovered dozens of them in Haverhill.
"The danger is the river is becoming more of a summer playground at the same time we've seen explosion in needles that are sitting in bushes, waiting silently for you to step on them and in the water, threatening those who are water skiing, jet skiing or taking part in some other activity," Morrison said. "The needles pose a danger to many people."
The quantity of syringes collected by the Clean River Project last year during riverbank cleanups and by setting out floating collection booms dwarfed what was found in past years, he said.
"You wouldn't believe how many needles we are finding," Morrison said. "They float into the brush along the banks and get hung up there, so we tell our volunteers to notify us so we can safely pick them up and put them in a proper container.
"I found a half dozen needles on the Lawrence boat ramp below the dam on Monday," Morrison said. "The next heavy rain will wash them into the river.
Needles are found along riverbanks known to be frequented by drug users. Needles are sometimes left on the ground at the river's edge, where they can be swept into the Merrimack.
Source of syringes debated
Jonathan Miller, former executive director of the former Team Coordinating Agency in Haverhill which merged with NFI Massachusetts, an organization that provides services to addicts, said it's a mystery as to why the syringe problem has suddenly grown.
"If the collection procedures were the same, then what accounts for the increase in the number of syringes found?" Miller said.
Asked if one possible source might be drug addicts, Miller said it would be wrong to think all or most addicts are using needles.
"Not everyone is injecting," he said.
Miller said the images of syringes published in The Eagle-Tribune appear to be insulin syringes typically used by diabetics.
"They do not appear to be intravenous needles, but an addict might use anything they can get their hands on," he said.
Miller said he is equally mystified as to why many of the syringes collected by the Clean River Project were capped at both ends.
"One interesting thing to do would be to send them to a lab to determine if there is anything in them," Miller said. "Why anyone would dump brand new syringes is beyond me. It's very strange and it's not making sense to me."
Morrison has said he believes the syringes his group is finding were mostly used by addicts, rather than discarded medical waste.
Needles often found in catch basins
Robert Ward, director of the city's water and wastewater operations, said a syringe flushed down a toilet could end up in the river, but that it is very unlikely. He said it is more likely for syringes to be found in the storm drain system.
"You could potentially have someone flush one down a toilet that goes into a combined sewer overflow pipe, which could then flow into the river during a heavy rain event,'' he said. "But it is very unlikely as 98 percent of storm water captured by the CSO (combined sewer overflow pipe) comes to the treatment plant in Bradford, although our plant operators don't see needles very often.''
Ward said syringes are often found in catch basins that capture storm water from streets, but that those basins are regularly cleaned by mechanical means, and any debris collected is properly disposed of.
"One of the hazards for guys working in the sewers is hypodermic needles," Ward said. "The needles are not everywhere, but our people do come across them now and then."
Other collection spots for syringes are "outfalls," or areas of gravel or grass where storm water is released into the river, Ward said. Syringes that collect at those outflow points could eventually end up in the river, he said.
"Syringes are much more common in the catch basins and storm drains than in sewers," he said, noting that communities upstream also have storm water outlets that drain into the river.