Discarded syringes barometer of Burlington’s growing drug problem

Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 4:11 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Evidence of Burlington’s growing drug problem can literally be found scattered on the city’s streets. Officials say they’ve found four times as many discarded needles around the Queen City as they did last year.

Ted Miles has worked for the city for more than 24 years, but for the last three, the code compliance officer and deputy health officer says he’s spent his mornings walking around downtown cleaning up discarded syringes. “We’ll get a request for pickup for a needle and all that you’ll see on the public site is a needle. But when you get out there it’s actually a dozen,” Miles said.

He uses tongs and a gripper to retrieve the needles, sometimes in hard-to-reach places like storm grates. Miles says he’s seen a drastic increase in the number of syringes this year. Usually, he finds 12 to 15 a day. But sometimes there are plastic bags of 20 to 30. He’s already filled an 18-gallon sharps bucket this year and has started on a second. He says it’s important to try to keep in mind the person who’s struggling behind the needle.

“It’s a challenge because I understand there’s a person behind this. So, there’s a humanity piece of it. Sometimes I will stop and talk to them, but if they are in the process of shooting up, I will actually wait with them to make sure they don’t go into an overdose,” Miles said. He carries the overdose reversal drug Narcan just in case.

We spoke to several people who use drugs or know people who do and they say there are more people coming to town to seek out drugs and not enough services available to help them.

“All the metrics we have is that the drug crisis has intensified,” said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. He says the city is working on ideas to combat the growing problem, which has been driven, in part, by the increased potency of the drugs available. “We know there are different drugs on the street now -- fentanyl, meth have really become the predominant drugs -- and we know that’s made our treatment systems less effective.”

For now, Miles just wants to make sure no one gets harmed by a discarded needle. The city encourages citizens to report the needles through the “See Click Fix” portal on the city’s website. And if citizens want to help with the clean-up, to do it safely. “You just wear gloves, use something like needle-nose pliers or something that you can grip the item with, and put it into a hard plastic container you can mark with ‘Not for recycling,’ and seal up the lid and put it into your regular household trash,” said the city’s Bill Ward.

He says there are also sharps containers at City Hall and the library for safe disposal of used needles.