Looking for a Haystack in a Pile of Dirty Needles - TribPapers

Looking for a Haystack in a Pile of Dirty Needles

Photo by Diana Polekhina.

Asheville – Used needles are a huge problem in Asheville. There have been reports of needles being found at school bus stops, in parks, and even in outlying neighborhoods. One of our Tribune staff members found a needle right next to his foot while out walking his dog. At one school bus stop kids found 10 syringes. Severe dangers to kids, pets, and adults who come into contact with these needles are an issue.

Medical facilities have very strict rules for handling needles, and for good reason—they are a serious biohazard. Proper disposal requires special containers that are specifically marked, so why are people with addiction problems allowed to just leave them where anyone can get hurt by them?

How dangerous are these needles?

Under the heading of Needlestick Intervention, “Buncombe County has listed on their website what to do if you are stuck by a needle: “If accidentally stuck: Flush and wash the area with soap and water; Go to your doctor or the nearest emergency room immediately for Hepatitis B & C and HIV testing; If you are not yet vaccinated, ask for Hepatitis B vaccination; Begin any preventive medications prescribed; Follow up per doctor’s orders for further testing.”

Buncombe County to the Rescue?

In 2019, Buncombe County started the Harm Reduction and Syringe Exchange Program. This program allows handing out clean needles from specific locations. The idea was to reduce the rate of overdoses and slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other diseases, through a needle swap. According to one report, the program has helped to reduce the number of overdoses, but the entities that are handing out needles are not being held accountable for recovering the used needles. These entities are The Steady Collective, Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP), and the Buncombe County Health Department. Numerous people have questioned whether we are helping, or enabling bad behavior.

Again, from the Buncombe County website, the number of syringes handed out in 2021 was 128,789; it went up in 2022 to 229,104. The rate of return for 2020, 2021, and 2022 was 7%, 18%, and 28%, respectively. That means that well over 250,000 syringes were not collected.

A Local Mother Calls Out the Mayor and City Council

The TV news station reported that a local business owner and mother sent a letter to the mayor and city council about the dangerous syringes littering right near her home. She and her neighbors have small children and are very concerned.

An excerpt from the letter says, “This weekend our neighbor found used needles in front of her home. We have a five and eight year old, and our next door neighbor also has young children and a small dog. Please see attached photo of needles found at the gate located extremely close to both of our homes. We have all seen the rise of unhoused people (even people coming in from other cities) and open drug-use in our community, with a focus on the downtown core. We must ask ourselves as a community: Are we enabling addiction?” She continued, “Handing out clean needles, food and tents with little accountability causes a huge amount of trash and dangerous needles to be left all over our community. Allowing crime rings to panhandle at every exit and in parking lots allows this problem to proliferate. We hear the term “harm reduction” being used by these organizations. Harm reduction for whom? Certainly not for the children, citizens, and animals in our neighborhoods. Who would be accountable if my five year old had been injured or infected by one of those needles?”

A New Short Term Program

In response to citizens’ pleas, the county is launching a Biohazard Litter Collection Program, funded by the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) fund. This initiative focuses on addressing biohazard litter like needles, feces, and drug paraphernalia. The program is costing $200,000.

Buncombe County Has Highest Opioid Deaths

In a document on the Buncombe County website titled Community Paramedic Collaborative, it states, “Opioid use is said to affect nearly 2 million Americans each year (ASAM, 2016) (Medline, 2020). Research has shown that Western North Carolina has been disproportionally affected by the Opioid Crisis, with Buncombe County having a value rate of 32.5 opioid deaths per 100,000 people in 2019—this is 15.3 value rates higher than the North Carolina value rate of 17.2 (NCDHHS, 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis has only worsened.”

Why is Buncombe County 15.3 value points higher than the state average? It might coincide with the leniency toward folks with addictions in Buncombe County and the City of Asheville. In the same publications, it also showed the results of the Point-In-Time count, a one-day count of the current number (that they can find) of homeless people in the area on that day: “During Buncombe County’s 2021 Point-In-Time count, conducted in January of 2021, there were 527 homeless people counted. 30% of those identified in the count were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (Burgess, 2021). The number of unsheltered homeless was 116, up 78% from 2020.