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Maine DEP Spreads Word about Proper Disposal of 'Sharps'
12/04/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Every year in Maine, people use millions of needles, syringes, and lancets - otherwise known as "sharps" - to treat diabetes and other medical conditions. But not everyone disposes of them properly. And that creates a public health hazard when contaminated needles come in contact with people, sometimes even washing from sewer overflow pipes into places like Portland's Back Cove. Last year, Maine lawmakers rejected a bill to require manufacturers to establish a state disposal program. In its place, the Department of Environmental Protection kicked off a campaign this fall to educate people about proper disposal. Patty Wight reports.

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In an ideal world, after someone uses a needle or syringe it should go into a puncture-proof container before it hits the trash - at the very least, something like a laundry detergent bottle. But that doesn't always happen. And the people who suffer the consequences are often those who deal with trash.

This moment - when a garbage worker picks up a bag of trash - is when they are most likely to be punctured by a sharp, according to Craig Pyy (left). He's the solid waste coordinator for the city of Portland.

"And when they go to reach into a barrel and grab the top, if there's a needle there, they're stuck in the hand," Pyy says - or in the leg as they swing the bag into the truck.

Pyy says punctures from sharps are one of the top hazards his workers face. It happens once or twice a year.

Patty Wight: "Once or twice a year doesn't sound that bad - but tell me if I'm wrong."

Craig Pyy: "Well, when you have to go home and tell your wife, or your husband or significant other that there's a possibility of certain diseases that stay with you the rest of your life that can actually be transmitted, what's small? What's a small chance? Let's have no chances. It's a simple thing."

"You know, we at DEP get calls almost every day from folks wanting to know how to dispose of their sharps," says Samantha Depoy-Warren, a spokesperson for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection.

While hospitals and doctor's offices must follow strict guidelines about how to dispose of sharps, the expectations for home users are more vague. And as the rate of certain diseases like diabetes rise, DePoy Warren says the DEP saw a need to educate people about proper sharp disposal.

"The campaign has included the distribution of 40,000 brochures, largely through pharmacies," DePoy Warren says.

The DEP also bought ads in newspapers and launched an informational Web site and video. The campaign was also prompted by a bill introduced in last year's Legislature that would have required sharp manufacturers to establish a state-wide disposal program.

"I believe we unanimously killed that bill," says Republican Tom Saviello, the former chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He says a mandatory disposal program wasn't enticing for a few reasons.

"Because it's got multiple different kinds of distributors," Saviello says. "You've got the pharmacy, you've got the doctor's office, you've got the hospital. You've got different kinds of places that are putting these things out, so it becomes difficult. How do you collect it? And who do you hold responsible for it?"

Plus, Saviello says, a mandatory program would ultimately transfer program costs to the consumer. So, he says, lawmakers decided it was wise to try a voluntary program.

There was already evidence that one such program was working in Aroostook County. "We began with this idea of working with local police departments, who have already been taking in prescription drug returns," says Bill Flagg, a spokesman for Cary Medical Center in Caribou.

Flagg says a lab technologist, Lisa Prescott, sparked the idea after visiting a patient's home and seeing lots of used sharps lying around. The hospital ultimately set up a sharp disposal kiosk in the Caribou Police Department, and it's been so successful there are now six kiosks from Fort Kent to Houlton.

"You know, I think a lot of times we underestimate the willingness of the public to respond to public health safety issues," Flagg says.

That said, Flagg does think getting manufacturers involved may be necessary in the future to ensure programs like theirs - which has been funded largely through grants - can be sustainable in the long term. There are costs to set up and maintain the kiosks, and to pay a medical waste disposal company to empty the kiosks when they're full.

Learn more about proper disposal of sharps.

Photo by Patty Wight.


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