A recent trend has seen discarded needles popping up all over town and in surrounding municipalities.
Community spaces and high-traffic areas are strewn with the pointy objects thrown away by drug users.
Sometimes it's not just a needle here or there but piles at a time, or sharps containers stuffed full with the dangerous objects and paraphernalia that comes along with shooting up.
Christy Herr, a public health nurse at the Northwestern Health Unit office in Fort Frances, said social media may be the reason why it seems like there is an influx of needles being carelessly disposed of locally.
“Sometimes it's hard when multiple Facebook posts are made about the needles,” noted Herr.
She added sometimes misconceptions are made about how the needle program at the health unit works and how their clientele can dispose of needles.
“People start making comments and discriminating against that clientele,” Herr stressed.
“The misinformation starts to roll through social media.”
Herr stressed the health unit promotes safe disposal to all clients using its needle exchange program.
“The needle exchange program is all confidential," she explained. ”Someone can come in and ask for a kit.
"They have a code, usually, and we ask them some questions about which drugs they use most often or if they've had any overdoses in the past year.
"Someone can come in asking for one needle or a number of needles.
“We also ask them if they have a sharps container,” added Herr.
“If they say no, then we ask them how they are disposing of their needles.”
Herr said if they mentioned they're disposing of them in an unsafe way or in an unsafe container, then she'll suggest bringing a sharps container home, which the health unit always has on hand.
To tackle needles that have been disposed of improperly in the community, the local Bear Clan Patrol has been providing pick-up services after receiving training from the health unit.
When residents come across a needle, they can contact the Bear Clan Patrol via Facebook to come dispose of it.
The health unit also offers this service but the Bear Clan Patrol does so 24/7.
“We've come across a lot of sharps containers in wooded areas,” noted project co-ordinator/patrol leader James Eastman.
Other needle hot spots he noted include the Point Park, near the railroad tracks around the soccer fields at Fort High, and down Scott Street.
Eastman said the number of calls they get per week varies. Sometimes it's two to three; other weeks they've had up to 10.
The Bear Clan Patrol also offers services for people who can't dispose of their needles properly to ensure they don't end up in community spaces.
Eastman noted many people are too shy or ashamed to drop their used kits off at the health unit office.
“We've received a few calls from addicts already," he remarked. ”They call us and say, 'Hey, can you come get my sharps containers?'
“If you're ashamed or too shy, give us a call," Eastman stressed. ”We'll come help you.
“Confidentiality is our key thing when it comes to sensitive situations like this,” he pledged.
Eastman and the rest of the Bear Clan are trained to properly dispose of sharps and other paraphernalia by Herr at the health unit.
“We are [disposing of needles] as safely as possible,” he assured.
They get disposal kits that include tongs to handle needles, as well as sharps containers to put the needles in.
“After doing disposals and pick-ups, we sanitize all of our equipment,” Eastman explained.
As hard as they may try to get all of the discarded needles, they are affecting people in the community, especially children who often are curious.
On April 3, Dawn Gray's seven-year-old son, Sam, was poked by a needle while walking home from Robert Moore School in a back alley near their home.
“He was walking home in our back alley, he stopped and saw the needle,” Gray recalled.
"He picked it up and took the cap off.
“At some point when he was trying to put the cap back on, it poked him,” she added.
“It didn't draw blood or break the skin.”
Sam told the neighbours what had happened since his mom wasn't home. They then contacted her at work.
“We ended up going to the hospital as a precaution," noted Gray. ”Again, it didn't break the skin so we weren't sure if we should go.
“We brought the needle with us and gave it to the nurse,” she added.
“They took blood beforehand to make sure that [Sam] didn't already have hepatitis C or HIV.”
Now, though, her son has to get blood work done every so often for the next year to make sure he didn't pick up any diseases from the used needle.
“We contacted the police while we were at the hospital,” said Gray.
"[The officer] came down and took the needle, and talked to us about what happened.
“[The police's] plan is to send the needle away to check the DNA and see what was in [the needle],” she noted.
This way, police will be able to track down who used the needle and disposed of it in a community space—and that person could be charged.
Gray conceded one of the biggest problems is that children are curious. And as much as you may tell them something, sometimes they tend not to listen.
“We need something to safeguard the children,” she stressed.
She noted the health unit had a community clean-up and other talks at Robert Moore School about avoiding used needles on the ground.
“The kids are being made aware," Gray said. ”But kids are curious and they might do things regardless of what we tell them.
“We can drill stuff into our kids' heads all the time and it's only going to do so much,” she reasoned.
“It's like telling them 'don't touch the burner, it's hot,' but they still touch the burner.”
Gray isn't sure how used needles have become such a problem in the community, but agreed it's frightening.
“This year there seems to be an over abundance of needles," she noted. ”They're everywhere and everyone seems to be reporting about them.
"I don't know why all the sudden this has become a problem.
“You sit there and think a little seven-year-old could have gotten AIDS or hepatitis C from one little poke of a needle that someone carelessly put on the ground,” Gray added.
"That kid's life and that family's life has now been changed dramatically.
“So far we have received nothing but good news," she noted. "But what if?”
Herr said disease transmission from a needle poke is very rare.
Worldwide, there only has been three recorded cases of each hepatitis B and C virus from a community-acquired needle stick injury, she noted.
As well, there have been no documented cases of HIV transmission from a non-health care associated needle stick injury.
Eastman said to prevent incidents like this from happening, there needs to be a better needle exchange program implemented at a government level.
“I'm all for the fact that [the health unit] is encouraging safer use with clean needles, clean snorting kits, and smoking kits,” he remarked.
"That way, addicts won't share needles.
“The statistics for diseases would go through the roof if we didn't," Eastman added. "However, I think there is a better way to manage it.”
“For example, a person comes in with three dirty needles, they should get three clean needles in return,” he said.
“That will help to cut down the problem.”
But Herr said restricting the service by only giving someone a needle when they bring one back actually increases the rates of hepatitis C and HIV.
“This is because people just end up sharing their needles,” she noted.
“We obviously strongly encourage people to bring back their needles,” Herr stressed.
“But it is not mandatory in order to use the program.”
Something both Herr and Eastman agree on is promoting needle awareness in the community,
“Awareness and education is a key thing that is going to make a safer community,” said Eastman.
“Having conversations throughout the community and promoting awareness and education is important,” echoed Herr.
“[It will] decrease the barriers from someone wanting to bring their needles back [to the health unit],” she added.
If you come across a needle in the community, contact the Northwestern Health Unit at 274-9827 or the Bear Clan Patrol at 276-2332 (or through its Facebook page via messenger) to come dispose of it.