It’s surprising that a plastic box next to a toilet could be controversial, but it is. Whenever a sharps container — you know, the red box designed for safe disposal of syringes and other medical devices — appears in a restroom, neighbors will buzz about it. On NextDoor and in Facebook groups, the presence of sharps containers is often viewed as enabling.
If you give an addict a sharps container, they’ll find a sharp to put in it. Right?
That was the opinion of the Seattle Public Library, or at least their spokesperson. Last year, when an employee was stuck by a needle that had been put in the bin for sanitary napkins, a representative for the library told Erica C. Barnett, reporting for the Seattle Met, that drug use was “against our code of content.” “Providing sharps containers,” Barnett wrote, summarizing the library’s position, “would be a tacit acknowledgement that people are using drugs.”
Opioid addiction has increased dramatically in the past five years, which is why a lot of folks assume that there are needles in bathrooms in the first place. But the thing about needles is this: A lot of people use them for a lot of different purposes.
The FDA estimates that, in the United States, more than 7 billion sharps are disposed of each year. Many are the result of intravenous drug use — but with more than 100 million people in the U.S. living with diabetes or prediabetes, a lot are also insulin needles or the smaller lancets that are used to test blood glucose levels. One report found that “more than 2 billion needles and syringes are used by self-injectors, largely for the treatment of diabetes.”
There are other reasons for syringe use, too. Individuals undergoing in vitro fertilization may have to self-inject in public places; one woman reported using more than 1,600 syringes in her effort to conceive.
And as for the concern that people will take the boxes off the wall to try to get new needles or flush out any remaining drugs? That’s an old story — and one that’s purely anecdotal. It’s also one that could be ended for good with enough needle exchanges and the availability of affordable treatment.
The need for sharps containers exists whether people are using illegal drugs or not. Because, of course, these disposal boxes aren’t for the users themselves, but for the grocery clerks and baristas who have to take out the trash at the end of each shift.
They are a matter of public health and safety, not of enabling. It seems strange to reject an inexpensive precaution for fear that it will exacerbate a problem it didn’t cause.
To find more information about needle exchanges and safe needle deposit sites, visit King County’s website.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant.
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