Hypodermic Needles Plague Potrero Hill
In three separate incidents last summer hypodermic needles were found littered on Potrero Hill. In one of the incidences, a toddler was poked by a needle while playing at Jackson Park; in another multiple needles were found in the park’s sandbox. And roughly nine needles were found strewn on Kansas Street.
“I was pretty shocked,” said Hill parent Megan Sheedy, who was at Jackson Park when three needles were found. Another parent, Jill Alyse Davis, was so upset that a child was poked by a needle she immediately took her son home. Yet, according to Sheedy, San Francisco Recreation and Park manager, Steve Cismowski, told her that syringes are frequently found in the City’s parks. And 18th Street resident Tom Strahan, who found the syringes on Kansas Street, said lots of needles have been found at McKinley Park over the years.
In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that needles were being left in parks and yards throughout San Francisco. In response, the City looked at revamping its needle exchange program, in which injection drug users can trade used syringes for clean ones. A 24-hour bio-hazard drop box was placed on Sixth Street, but has since been removed because it wasn’t being used. People were putting trash inside the box, said Eileen Loughran, health program coordinator, community health promotion branch, San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH). Syringe disposal sites have been installed on Ivy Street near Davies Symphony Hall and at Glide Memorial Church. Another proposal — to provide syringes that retract after one use — wasn’t implemented, mostly because the cost of the syringes was too high,
Where the syringes are coming from, and why they’re being found on Potrero Hill, isn’t known. According to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s website, the foundation operates a syringe exchange site at 225 Potrero Avenue, between 15th and 16th streets. But AIDS Foundation spokesperson, Ryan McKeel, said that the foundation doesn’t actually operate a site at that location. Instead, McKeel said the closest site is at 16th and Mission streets, “and that only operates at limited times each week. That said, the foundation would never condone leaving used syringes at a playground or any other site in the City,” McKeel wrote in an email. “That is why we operate close to a dozen needle exchange sites throughout the City each week, so that people have a safe place to dispose of their used needles.”
According to McKeel, the City’s decades-old commitment to needle exchange programs “has resulted in rates of new HIV infections among [intravenous] drug users that are well below the national average. In other words, needle exchanges are vital to improving the health of our entire community.”
Loughran said the AIDS Foundation is the lead agency “dealing with the disposal of used syringes.” The foundation also leads the Syringe Access Collaborative, which includes five syringe access and disposal programs in the City, funded by the SFDPH. “There are 21 sites in total covered by the SAC,” Loughran said. Loughran added that staff at each site does a sweep of the area after each exchange. “We take this really seriously,” Loughran said of the discarded syringes.
According to Loughran, the City does not require a minimum distance between needle exchange sites and parks or schools. But, Loughran said that Chapter 79 of the San Francisco Administrative Code “requires the City, a City contractor, or other agent of the City to post a public notice 15 days before approving certain types of City projects,” such as a syringe exchange site. The 15-day time period gives people time to share their concerns before the project is implemented. Loughran said.
Neither Rachael Kagan, chief communications officer for San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), nor Eileen Shields, SFDPH public information officer, were aware of large amounts of syringes missing from the hospital or the health department’s clinics. Shields said that the errant needles could have come from a pharmacy; Kagan pointed out that people can purchase syringes. “Pharmacies, such as Walgreens, can sell or provide up to 30 syringes to an individual over 18 years of age without a prescription,” Loughran said.
Besides syringe exchange sites, other drug treatment sites are close to Potrero Hill. For example, SFGH hosts an outpatient clinic for methadone detoxification and maintenance at 995 Potrero Avenue.
No arrests have been made in connection with the needle incidents, said Captain Robert O’Sullivan, San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), Bayview Station, and an arrest is unlikely given the lack of an eyewitness. O’Sullivan confirmed that SFPD is patrolling Jackson Park at night. “In response to the needle incident, I directed the patrol lieutenants to have the swing watch and midnight patrol officers assigned to Potrero Hill walk the park at night and take enforcement action as necessary,” O’Sullivan confirmed by email. “So far, no incidents of note.”
O’Sullivan said that in addition to nightly patrols, “Bayview Station park patrol officer, Officer Mel Thornton, frequents the park daily on weekdays. Officer Thornton speaks regularly with Rec and Park staff. [He] is a longtime veteran of the Bayview and has been assigned as the park officer for a number of years. He has an excellent relationship with Rec and Park staff.”
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