Wade Green wishes he would have heeded an August warning from a neighbor.
Now Green, a Boulder resident of the Park East neighborhood, is waiting on results of blood tests on his 4-year-old son. Those results, expected in the coming weeks and months, will reveal whether the boy contracted a lifelong disease after being pricked by a hypodermic needle left near a playground by their home.
The incident occurred while the boy was playing with another child and being watched by a family friend, just two days after a neighboring family relayed to Green they would no longer be going to Park East Park after discovering a needle near the playground.
“We should have listened closer,” Green told Boulder City Council, while at times holding back tears during his public comment Tuesday.
A pediatrician for Green’s son lived across the street and examined the boy, finding two needle pokes on his hand, Green said.
“We had to decide whether to put him on prophylaxis for preventing HIV,” Green said. “We decided on abstaining from that because it has serious side effects. We opted to do a baseline test the next day. He had a six-week blood draw. He has to undergo a three-month and six-month blood draw yet, to make sure he is not HIV or hepatitis-C positive, both of which are lifelong diseases.”
His nightmarish experience was in part the impetus for an update to council from the director of The Works, Boulder County’s 30-year-old needle and syringe exchange program in which injection drug users can participate for access to clean equipment and ensure proper disposal of their used apparatus without fear of arrest.
The issue of used needles being left in public places is not limited to Park East. A city contractor on Thursday cleaned up syringes in the civic area along the Boulder Creek Path, and crews sometimes find them left at the playground outside the main Boulder Public Library, according to city Facilities and Assets Management Supervisor Mark Simon.
“I ask the council to strongly consider the safety of our children when determining if it is a good idea to pump thousands of needles into the waterways, the playgrounds where our children play,” Green said.
Boulder County Communicable Disease and HIV Prevention Coordinator Carol Helwig, who has overseen The Works for 10 years, told council that numerous sources point to needle exchange programs reducing drug use and unsafe disposal of injection apparatus.
“All the literature supports syringe access programs as effective in reducing blood-born pathogens and not increasing drug use and crime,” Helwig said.
Program considered effective
Participation in The Works skyrocketed about 12-fold from 2010 through 2019, consistent with the national rise in opioid prescriptions and abuse, but there appears to have been a leveling off over the last three years to between 1,600 and 1,800 unique participants, according to Helwig’s presentation to council.
“Some good news about the leveling off is it coincides with an increase in locally available treatment options, so perhaps more people are entering treatment, but we can’t draw those conclusions from just this data,” Helwig said.
The majority of The Works participants are housed, with 49% in a home they rent or own, 21% living with friends or family and 2% in transitional housing like a motel, versus 23% living on the street, outdoors or in a car and 5% in a shelter,according to Helwig’s presentation.
A large majority of participants — 70% — are insured by Medicaid, with 10% on private health insurance 2% on Medicare and 3% on other insurance, with 15% uninsured.
People who use syringe access programs like The Works are five times as likely to enter treatment for substance use disorders and are more likely to reduce or stop injecting than people who inject drugs but don’t use syringe access, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated in 2017, according to Helwig.
Since the end of 2013, a year in which overdose deaths in Boulder County peaked at 57, The Works has distributed the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to its participants, with 251 kits handed out between January and August, contributing to the 54 overdose reversals reported to county officials by participants, according to Helwig’s presentation.
Boulder County’s rate of 3.7 HIV cases per 100,000 people measured from 2013 to 2018 is half of Colorado’s as a whole, and the county’s hepatitis C rate from 2008 to 2014 of 37.2 cases per 100,000 is 43% less than the state’s, according to the presentation.
“This data really tells us that our syringe access program is working,” Helwig said. “We’ve been able to maintain these rates even through the large increase in the number of people injecting substances.”
About 60% of syringes provided by The Works are returned directly to the program, Helwig said, and the program is unable to measure the number returned to public wall-mounted disposal containers at libraries, grocery stores and in municipal buildings.
“Communities that have syringe access programs have less syringe litter,” Helwig said, adding that she doesn’t believe the remaining 40% of needles not returned to the program end up as litter.
The 24-hours-a-day disposals and exchange sites, such as one offered at Mental Health Partners, 3180 Airport Road in Boulder, collects up to 76 gallons of used injection materials per week.
Needle exchange locations
- Boulder County AIDS Project
2118 14th St., 303-444-6121
Monday through Friday 2 to 5 p.m.
- Boulder County Public Health
3482 Broadway, 303-413-7500
Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Mental Health Partners
3180 Airport Road, 303-441-1281
24 hours, every day
- Boulder County Public Health, Clinica Lafayette building
1735 South Public Road, first floor, 720-564-2708
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Boulder County Public Health
515 Coffman St., Suite 200, 303-678-6166
Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Services are free, confidential or anonymous. (Source: Boulder County)
Helwig also held back tears as she quoted an editorial published in the Times-Call in 1989 by former Boulder County Public Health director Dr. Federico Cruz Uribe, when The Works was just getting started as an informal agreement with law enforcement — the county in 2011 officially adopted the needle exchange program as the state’s first.
“We hope that the people will judge our program using the basic values of our community and by our program results,” the editorial stated.
Costs of cleaning up needles, syringes and other biohazards like human waste have also grown for Boulder in the last three years, though exactly how much has been difficult to quantify. From 2016 to 2108, the city’s cost for contracting Serv-Pro to address regular cleanup of hazardous waste and encampments in public spaces has jumped 250% from about $72,000 in 2016 to about $182,000 in 2018, Deputy Parks and Recreation Director Alison Rhodes said.
“Trash pick-up is a regular duty that accounts for 12% of labor hours across urban parks, based upon our labor standards that specify trash frequencies,” Rhodes said. “Staff do spend more time on hazardous waste cleanup than years prior, (but) data is not yet available to convey to what extent this is happening.”
The city is working to develop a data collection method across the parks, public works and open space departments to identify the volume and frequency of hazardous waste removal and its costs, Rhodes said.
Searching for solutions
Boulder two years ago piloted an effort to place what were labeled as “tamper-proof” sharps disposals in portable toilets in public spaces, but the disposals proved ineffective and were still vandalized. Officials are looking for a truly tamper-proof solution to again try to implement, Rhodes said.
Council members urged city or county staff to develop a webpage showing the benefits of The Works to which they could direct community members who take issue with the county’s needle exchange program, or hold a perception it contributes to the problem of hazardous waste being left in public.
“It’s only been over the past two years that I’ve heard concerns from our community and it has come from a very small handful of people,” Helwig said. “I think the majority of the people in our community do understand the value and do support it. The few people that are opposed may not be open to hearing about it, is what I feel from my experience.”