Reality Check: Opioid epidemic creates threat from discarded syringes

Asheville City labor crews received training in January for how to dispose of needles. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Opioid overdose deaths increased by 27.7 percent nationally from 2015-16, according to a new report from the CDC. The epidemic has affected the Western North Carolina community in many ways, among them is the threat to public health and the environment.

That means safety concerns have increased for Asheville's sanitation and labor crews. Employees are finding discarded syringes more often, and the city recently provided training on how to properly dispose of them.

Once you start looking, the tossed syringes aren't too hard to find.

"I've been with Asheville Greenworks since 2010. We would see one to two needles a year on these cleanups. Now, we see needles every time we go out. We don't just see one or two, but we see a dozen or more," Asheville Greenworks director of operations Eric Bradford said.

While waiting in a parking lot with Bradford for a group of volunteers to arrive for a cleanup, it didn't take long to prove him correct. There was a syringe sitting in the mulch just a few feet away.

"I'm going to pick that up. You guys aren't," Bradford explained to the group. "Don't pick up anything hazardous. You guys see any kind of needles and such, I'm the only person here qualified to be able to pick them up."

Students from N.C. State came to clean up a road in Leicester.

"One right there and right there," Jaeleen Mendoza said, pointing out needles on the side of a road.

The sight no longer surprises city employees.

"We're finding a lot of needles," city of Asheville labor crew coordinator Chris Daniels said.

Employees received training from nurse Nancy Walker on what to do when they find syringes. The training was based on CDC recommendations.

"The reason is because there's a high incidence of finding needles out on job sites," Walker said.

"We're very grateful for that (the training), because we do find quite a few," Daniels said.

Walker said anyone who finds a discarded syringe should consider it to be contaminated. Getting stuck could expose you to HIV or hepatitis. Needles could also contain unknown drugs. If you see one, Walker said don't touch it and definitely don't throw it in the trash.

"Putting uncapped needles in the trash is very dangerous for our employees, especially those in the sanitation department, because they (the needles) can go through regular trash bags and stick our employees," Walker said.

Even as more people are finding discarded syringes, Buncombe County emergency crews are responding to more overdoses. In 2014, Buncombe County EMS responded to 545 overdoses. In 2017, EMS responded to 1,236 overdoses. Through the first two months of 2018, EMS has responded to three overdoses per day,

"Our heart really goes out to these poor folks that are going through this," Bradford said.

Since this story aired, Bradford was stuck by a syringe. He said blood tests indicate he is OK now, but he needs to go back for a checkup in six months and is starting hepatitis B vaccine.

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