Discarded needles an ongoing problem in city streets

In three biohazard waste containers, Chris and Lisa Grinham revealed seven-and-a-half gallons of an ongoing problem in Ottawa: discarded needles.

When the Grinhams presented the 1,327 discarded needles to the city's community and protective services committee June 19, they said it represented a 13-week effort to make downtown Ottawa safer and cleaner.

"Here's what we're aiming for: zero needles on the street," said Chris Grinham, co-founder of Safer Ottawa, a non-profit group trying to rais awareness on harm reduction.

The mass collection came from "hot spots" in Lowertown, Sandy Hill and the Byward Market, but to safeguard the entire community, Grinham said Ottawa "would need an army of needle hunters."

Safer Ottawa also contributed to a report by Dr. Isra Levy, the medical officer of health commissioned to update the committee on the city's current needle pick-up program.

The committee recommended that city council approve Levy's plan to direct $100,000 towards a clean needle and syringe distribution program, after Stittsville-Kanata West Councillor Shad Qadri said discarded needles continue to be a public safety hazard.

Aside from making information available to the public, Grinham says he wants Levy and city council to grasp the severity of the situation. Grinham says if Ottawa keeps prolonging the debate, the consequences could begin to outweigh progress.

"This has everything to do with funding," said Grinham, who favours a needle exchange program over the proposed clean needle and syringe program. "They're not saying an exchange won't work, they're saying they're not willing to commit enough money to fund it."

Qadri, one of three councillors who requested the report from Levy, says the proposal is "all in all, a better program."

"Dr. Levy has really committed — newer drop boxes, a hotline, hiring people," said Qadri. "It's not just about funding."

At Somerset West Community Health Centre, Eugene Williams says they're delighted with the plan. He says they've been advocating a clean needle program for a long time, and now the city is finally focusing in the right place.

"We want to continue working with the community, with Ottawa, with public health," said Williams, the health promotion coordinator.

Rob Eady, senior manager of public relations at Shepherds of Good Hope, says he prefers that the city provide a needle exchange program, but anything to keep the community safe is great."

"I'm not sure if they'll ever approve an exchange program," said Eady. "It's a 'what if?' "

Eady says Shepherds of Good Hope is the only main homeless shelter currently distributing needles with the intention of continuing their exchange program, in which a clean needle is provided upon the return of a used needle.

Qadri says the trouble with a one-for-one policy is the high degree of risk attached.

According to Qadri, it's the residents, the emergency response teams and suppliers who are in danger of accidentally being stabbed or acquiring a disease under a one-for-one program.

Whereas Qadri supports Levy's concerns for the possibility of an increase in HIV infections with a one-for-one exchange plan, Grinham said there is no evidence HIV has been contracted from sharing needles.

"If they don't do it right, it will increase HIV infections," said

Grinham. He says if the city does its job right, more money and lives will be saved in the long run.

Williams said "the concept of an exchange is a bit of a misnomer" and says he agrees with the many disadvantages of a one-for-one program.

Instead of distribution or exchange, Qadri says $50,000 of the budget would be used to research retractable needles, a safer alternative.

"It's unclear whether the ministry will approve funding, but that doesn't mean research will stop," said Qadri.

Qadri says if the issue remains, if there are no improvements, the committee will request the program be reviewed.

"I give the doctor 18 months," he said. "We will confer on a regular basis, and we're also asking that Chris and Lisa see if the area is


Williams says it's always good practice to review, and says he's comfortable with the duration if it gets dirty needles off the street.

"Any drug strategy structured by the four pillars – prevention, harm reduction, treatment and community policing – will work," he said.

But for Grinham, 18 months is too long.

"I'm not waiting 18 months," said Grinham. "I want to see drastic improvements by November. This isn't something that can wait."

"We're not trying to build Rome," he said. "We just want to fix mismanagement."