A suitcase containing used needles found outside the Main Street Prospera Credit Union building Wednesday resulted in another call to Penticton Fire Rescue.
Donning their protective eyewear and gloves, firefighters Joel Black and Tyler Guy removed several syringes from among the clothes inside and safely disposed of them. Also found were other items from the harm reduction kits which are distributed to those who shoot up or smoke opiates on the street.
The latest call comes on the heels of one of the largest finds of disposed needles earlier this month when over 100 were found among the debris at the former Playtime Bingo Hall on West Eckhardt Avenue.
“I’ve never seen that — 100 needles — I’ve never seen that in my career,” said deputy chief Chris Forster, who was listening to the call on his radio that day. “That’s just crazy.”
“Basically there’s youths and children in the area (due to the proximity to the soccer fields) and that’s why we make sure when we get called to somewhere, we search the whole area. Generally we’ll go right around a building because where people spot one or two there will be three or four, or, like in this case over 100.”
He added that with the exception of that discovery, the calls to the department for needle pickup is about average. However, according to director of facilities Doug Gorcak of the Okanagan Skaha School District, that is definitely not the case on school grounds, especially those in the downtown area.
“If you look historically we might have found two to five needles a year, but unfortunately we’re starting to get some of the big-city issues,” said Gorcak. “This year starting in early August, it’s just gone crazy. We’ve probably found 100, 125 needles.
“There seems to be a bit of an issue around Penticton Secondary, KVR (middle school) and even over to the library in that little park.”
The district has taken steps to combat the issue.
“After we realized the problem was not just going to go away we did start putting security on, we did start doing staff training on needle disposal and we talked to principals about making sure there’s someone doing a site check in the morning before the kids come around,” said Gorcak. “We also sent some resources out from Interior Health in education of the students, what to do, the young ones, call an adult, get someone there who knows how to deal with these things because ultimately our number one goal is staff and student safety.”
Maintenance workers also carry “sharps kits” with them, but according to Gorcak they are going through the single-use tube very quickly these days.
One downtown pharmacist believes the increasing problem of discarded needles is partly due to the provincial harm reduction program started several years ago. The plain brown paper bag contains new needles, mixing tools and other items including condoms.
“It’s fine they are giving these kits out,” said the pharmacist who is part of the program. “But, there should be some form of collection method as well. There used to be a peer group here that collected the needles from hot spots but they don’t seem to be around anymore.”
Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson agreed.
“I like the concept of safe injection sites,” said Watkinson. “I’ve had experience with safe injection sites in other areas and it certainly improves the environment instead of randomly placed used needles. Or, the needle exchange program where users can’t be given a new needle unless they’re exchanging an old needle which I think is a good method to reduce the risk to public safety.”
He added the exchange policy would also work with the harm reduction kits.
“My position is return the ones you used,” said Watkinson. “I think that is the responsibility of the users and I understand some of these users don’t have the cognitive capacity to look that far ahead but we need to start taking steps towards risk reduction.”
He also believes all levels of government need to look at the much bigger picture.
“Needles are basically the waste of a greater problem, and that’s addictions, homelessness and mental health and I think we need to start not just at the bottom but at the higher level, the prevention level not just the response level,” said Watkinson.
For now, he and Forster urge anyone who finds a discarded needle to call the fire department.
“Don’t touch the needles,” said Forster. “We’ve got the proper equipment, it’s not just getting stuck but the fluids on the needles as well. A lot of people think I’m not going to touch the end of the needle and just throw it in the garbage, but they could have something on their fingers.”
Improper disposal can also put many other people at risk.
“We’re well trained to deal with it and we’re glad people are calling,” said Watkinson. “We’re not going to come with lights and sirens blaring but we will attend. It’s helpful to us if people can give us as much information about the location as possible or wait nearby, but don’t touch the needle.”