November 24, 2012

Campaign to keep 'sharps' out of trash falls short, state told

Tighter controls are sought on the millions of needles Mainers dispose of so casually each year.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Don Simoneau of Fayette advocates for patients to use approved containers, like the one he is holding, when disposing of needles.

David Leaming/Staff Photographer

TACKLING THE PROBLEM

RITE AID and sharps manufacturer Becton, Dickinson and Co. worked with the Department of Environmental Protection to launch a public education campaign in September.

The department will distribute 40,000 brochures and 3,000 needle clipping devices to Mainers using sharps through pharmacies, grocery stores and community groups.

It encourages Mainers to put sharps into laundry detergent bottles and to use needle clipping devices. The devices, which are also manufactured by the company, retail for about $6 and hold up to 1,500 needle tips.

ATTEMPT AT LEGISLATION

MAINE AND many other states have few requirements for the disposal of household sharps.

Don Simoneau, a 60-year-old veteran from Fayette, has been active in the needle disposal issue for five years.

"I think the state of Maine has ducked the issue," he said.

He said he knows people who use needles who have infections and other illnesses. "It didn't seem right to me."

Simoneau said a dangerous double standard exists.

"You wouldn't do that with hospital waste," he said.

Partly because of Simoneau's efforts, state legislators crafted a bill, sponsored by state Rep. Melissa Walsh Innes, D-Yarmouth, that would have required manufacturers of sharps to be responsible for disposal.

The sharps bill was declared dead in January after the state Environment and Resources Committee voted it down. Innes said it failed because of industry opposition.

Becton, Dickinson and Co., a company Innes said manufactures about 85 percent of the sharps used in Maine, was one of those that opposed the bill.

"Industry said they didn't think it was needed," she said.

Calls to the company's corporate communications office were not returned.

A collection container that will safely hold 100 needles retails for about $4.50, but he said even that relatively low cost is too much of an obstacle.

"They might see the sense of it but they just don't want to spend the extra money because of their financial situation," Erickson said.

Needles that are packaged can be put into the solid waste stream or taken to collection centers that send them to proper medical waste disposal sites.

Although detergent bottles can burst and leave needles in the crevices of garbage trucks, Erickson said using them is better than nothing.

"There have been surveys that show 95 percent of needles don't go in any kind of container," he said. "I guess it's just too convenient to just throw them in the trash."

Some household sharps find their way into hospitals for disposal, but that is becoming less common in Maine, according to state Rep. Melissa Walsh Innes, D-Yarmouth, who sponsored legislation that would regulate needle disposal.

"Hospitals and medical facilities, they properly dispose of them," Innes said. "Some will take them from customers, but they don't want everyone to do it. They have to pay for that."

THE FUTURE OF SHARPS

While many local collection programs fail because people just don't use them, when there are free containers and convenient collection points, a local program can be hugely successful, Erickson said.

He said that only 5 percent of needles go into containers in most places, but a few model programs have achieved compliance rates of up to 90 percent.

Erickson also said that manufacturers can take it upon themselves to make a difference, even if they're not compelled to do so by legislation.

He said his company, UltiMed, is smaller and privately owned, so "We can make decisions that are a little more out of the mainstream of maximizing the profit for the next quarter."

UltiMed packages include a tray that allows used needles to be disposed of in the same package.

Erickson said the added functionality is well worth the cost to the company, which amounts to less than a dollar per container.

"Frankly, I don't think that the other companies want the expense of providing a sharps container," he said. "It's our responsibility as a manufacturer to supply at least the free sharps container. We've tried to encourage the competition to do it as well, with little success."

Innes said that while the sharps bill didn't pass in Maine this year, when Democrats return to power next year, the issue will probably come back up.

"I'll certainly be asking whoever is chair to invite industry back in to hear what they've done to help people dispose of them properly," she said.

Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

 

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