For more than a decade, the United States has been grappling with a growing heroin epidemic that has affected thousands of Americans. Now, that crisis is threatening the environment.
According to the Associated Press, officials in Portland, Maine have recovered more than 700 used and discarded heroin needles so far this year. While that number may already seem high, it's expected to exceed the state's 2016 total of 900 recovered needles long before this year ends.
If that surprises you, brace yourself again. In San Francisco, a collection effort recovered more than 13,000 syringes in just one month, which amounted to 10,000 needles more than the previous year's total of 2,900.
As the number of discarded dirty needles increases, so, too, does the risk of people being exposed to blood-borne illnesses like HIV, or even trace amounts of heroin itself. This poses an even greater threat to children, like one six-year-old who placed a syringe in her mouth thinking it was a thermometer.
Health professionals are starting to chime in on this problem, especially in states most harshly affected by the crisis. Tim Soucy, the health director in Manchester, N. H., said, "We would certainly characterize this as a health hazard" after collecting 570 needles in 2016 and 247 so far this year.
Syringes have been found on beaches, lakes, rivers, and ponds, leaving countless Americans exposed to risk of infection. One young girl was stuck in her foot by a needle while at a beach in New Hampshire. Another child found a needle left at her elementary school in Utah.
People who come into contact with these syringes must go through a long and arduous process to ensure they haven't contracted anything.
In Lowell, Mass., activist Rocky Morrison is driving a recovery effort to clean the Merrimack River, where workers have found hundreds of needles. Morrison keeps the needles in a large fishbowl to illustrate just how bad the problem is.
"We started seeing it last year here and there. but now, it's just raining needles everywhere we go," he said.
Similarly, a group in Santa Cruz, Calif., reported finding more than 14,500 needles over the last four-and-a-half years.
Gabrielle Korte, a member of Take Back Santa Cruz, said, "It's become pretty commonplace to find them. We call it a rite of passage for a child to find their first needle. It's very depressing. It's infuriating. It's just gross."
In addition to the cleanup efforts, many people are banking on needle exchange programs or safe spaces for drug users to shoot up as ways of alleviating the issue. Then again, there's a good chance these "solutions" will only exacerbate the problem.
Lawmakers have proposed legislation to take on the crisis. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently signed 11 bills to combat his own state's opioid epidemic, including a bill that would allow school administrators to use a drug that halts OD's and another that creates a charter school for recovering addicts.
These combined efforts may be enough to slow the widespread effects of rampant drug use, but it will likely take a concerted effort to reduce drug use in the first place before we see any lasting results.
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