Editorial: Evaluating acceptable risk

Risk isn’t the only factor for discarded needles

Interior Health wants you to know there is little risk associated with discarded needles.

Exposed to the elements, they say, fragile viruses like HIV and hepatitis will break down quickly.

So even if the drug user who just shot up in the park and dropped his needle was infected with something nasty, the chances of your child getting infected after treading on a needle are minimal.

On the other hand, distributing free needles improves health outcomes by discouraging sharing needles—and infections—between drug users.

So, lowering the risk on both sides of the equation is good, right? Not really. Or at least, people’s concerns don’t end there.

Though the risk of getting infected from a discarded needle is low, it’s not non-existent. If it was your child that got poked with a discarded needle, all the reasonable arguments in the world are going to do little to calm your fears.

Fear is key to the problem. Interior Health is right, there is little reason to fear discarded needles, but that is not the point.

People have a right to not have to deal with discarded needles, to expect our parks and beaches to be free of such items, at least as much as humanly possible. Especially in the Okanagan, Similkameen and Shuswap, areas that rely heavily on tourism.

Finding, or worse stepping on, a used needle, is going to damage a community’s tourism reputation, regardless of the chance of infection.

Supplying needles to drug-users is a proven harm-reduction strategy, which needs to continue. And while IH does supply sharps containers for returning used needles, we have to consider whether a drug user who has just shot up is likely to be careful about storing his or her used needle.

This isn’t about stigmatizing or blaming street addicts. That is another problem, and let’s face it, it will never be completely solved. But without wanting to ignore these people who do need help, we can work to minimize the effect of their addiction on the rest of society.

Along with reducing harm by distributing clean needles, IH needs a harm-reduction program for communities. Whether that is by paying part of the cost of cleaning parks and beaches, installing easily accessible disposal boxes or giving users a reason to return their needles like a buy-back program, Interior Health has a responsibility to the communities they are operating in.

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