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Cleaning Up The Neighbohood, One Used Syringe At A Time


Reminders of the growing heroin epidemic in the Northwest can be found in parks, alleyways, front yards and school playgrounds. We’re talking about the used needles that addicts leave behind.


People trying to keep their neighborhoods clean, who don’t want to rely on government agencies, are picking up syringes themselves.


Mike Cuadra, who lives in North Seattle, is one such individual. He started noticing used needles laying around his neighborhood a few years ago.


“I just started to see them everywhere. In alleyways and parks.The bright orange caps,” said Cuadra.


The orange piece of plastic is the cap to a syringe. If you see this, it means the slender tube about three inches long, with a white plunger and a needle, or a sharp, is somewhere nearby.


Lichton Springs and Mineral Springs Parks are the two places Cuadra keeps an eye on. He doesn’t have kids, but he hates the idea of a child or a pet getting accidentally pricked. So, once every few weeks he goes on a hunt for sharps.


One recent afternoon, I walked with Cuadra in Mineral Springs Park. It’s a place where people play a game called disk golf. The park is rundown. There are islands of tall bushes that provide private spaces to inject drugs. We talked with our heads bowed down, scanning the grass and wood chips, looking for needles.


“I just kind of wander around,” said Cuadra. “It’s usually in any type of place that will maybe shelter them from the view of the street. And other times I just found them in the street across from a playground in the gutter, across from a playground. Just in the gutter across from a playground, so people are tossing them out of their cars,” he said.


We spot a needle wedged at the base of a stack of small logs. Cuadra would have reached in and grabbed it if he had his gloves. A few steps away, there’s another needle on the ground. Cuadra pulled out his trash picker.


“I’m picking it up and I’m putting it in this sharps container. Yeah, there’s probably 30 in there now. It can hold, like, 200,” he said.


When Cuadra shakes the plastic box, it makes the same sound as a child’s half-full piggy bank.


When the box is full, Cuadra will either take it to a transfer station or to a needle exchange center. The needles are bio hazardous waste and will be incinerated.


When Cuadra does this work he follows a specific protocol that he learned from a man named Joe Tinsley.


“I’m the syringe service manager for the Public Health Seattle King County Needle-Exchange Program” said Tinsley. “Our primary customer base are people who are injecting drugs. The main drug that folks are injecting is heroin, so heroin users.“


Lately, Tinsley has been getting requests from community groups about how to handle the needles they find in their neighborhoods. He has a list he hands out called, ‘Important Points For Picking Up Sharps’.  


“I always tell people to never pick anything up with their bare hands,” said Tinsley, as he started to run down a familiar set of instructions.

Gloves are a must. Latex are good. Thick leather is even better. Stay as far away from the needles as possible.

“If you can, if you have some sort of a tool, like tweezers or tongs. Something that gives you a little bit of distance from the syringe,” said Tinsley.

Wear closed-toe shoes. And put the needles in a hard plastic container, but don’t hold the container as you put the needles in.

Tinsley said put the container on the ground or on a hard surface, “So it doesn’t slip out of your hands or tip over.” Then, put the syringe in, point first into the container.

“Something that is also good to do is, go slow,” are Tinsley’s final words of advice for people who want to take on this dirty responsibility.

Despite what people like Cuadra are seeing in their neighborhoods, a lot of drug users are in fact taking the time to properly dispose their used syringes. Last year the needle exchange program in King County collected just under seven-million used needles. It’s a number that’s been creeping up each year.


Every day at the needle exchange clinic in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, people from all walks of life, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, come in to unload their used syringes and pick up clean ones.


“It’s not uncommon to have somebody that’s sort of this stereotypical homeless looking person standing right next to somebody in a suit and tie on their lunch break doing their exchange. Which just sort of shows you sort of the spectrum of the folks that we see,” said Tinsley.


Back at Mineral Springs Park, Mike Cuadra says sometimes there are so many needles, it’s as if someone walked around sowing seeds in a garden. On the day we met, not so much. He only collected one.  “That’s a good day!” Cuadra laughs.


After learning more about the heroin epidemic and cleaning up after users’ highs, Cuadra believes in an idea he thought he’d never support: opening injection sites. These are spaces where addicts can shoot up with health care workers on hand to prevent overdoses. An injection site in Vancouver, B.C. has prevented more than 4,000 overdoses since it first opened in 2003.


“It keeps users alive so they can seek treatment,” said Cuadra.


While Cuadra believes in the concept, he knows there are plenty of challenges to opening such a place in King County and is doubtful it will ever happen.


“Where’s it needed the most?” Cuadra asked. More importantly, “What neighborhood is going to accept it? And where are we going to find the funding for it?”


The King County Task Force on Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction is looking into the possibility of opening an injection site.


In 2014, there were 156 heroin related deaths in King County, the highest number in 20 years. Later this month a report is coming out that will offer the most current snapshot of drug addiction in King County.


Preliminary data show that for the first time ever, the number of admissions, how many times people check into treatment centers to try and kick heroin, surpassed the number of admissions for alcohol addiction.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.