The Corner

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Prickly Problem


Improperly disposed of contaminated needles is perhaps the most underreported public-health danger in the United States. Every year, some 3 billion injections occur outside of health-care settings. According to The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and Human Retrovirology, 93% of the needles and syringes are simply thrown into ordinary trash receptacles. Do the math: That’s about 8 million needles and syringes per day. So far as I am aware, public health officials–federal and state–have not begun to take the measure of the problem, much less do anything about it.

A few weeks ago, the matter got a bit of public attention when a third-grade student in Philadelphia stuck nineteen schoolmates with her mother’s diabetic needle. Shortly after that episode, there was another incident in a school in Harlingen, Texas where thirty-five students were stuck. OSHA estimates that something approaching 800,000 healthcare workers are victims of needle-stick injuries each year, but beyond healthcare workers no one seems to be keeping track. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had a task force on syringe disposal at one point, but it was terminated a few years ago.

One thing that ought to be done is this: Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance programs should cover the costs of safe home needle disposal. There are technologies available, such as the needle disintegrator manufactured by Safeguard Medical Technologies in Ohio, that enable diabetics and others who must regularly inject themselves outside of healthcare settings to dispose of their needles and syringes without putting others at risk. The cost per unit of these technologies is modest, especially considered in light of the public-health dangers of improper disposal.