PALMER — This month, a shiny blue receptacle that resembles a mailbox was installed in an alley behind Mat-Su Urgent Care in Palmer, across the street from the local fire department.
The unassuming box marks a major step in a long-running campaign to combat the public health hazards posed by used hypodermic needles: It’s the first publicly funded used-needle disposal site in Alaska.
Advocates say their hope is that it will help address an epidemic of used syringes that have long littered parks, playgrounds and other public spaces around the state, and in the Mat-Su in particular.
Used syringes pose a significant public health risk — especially given the potency of fentanyl, an opioid that can be fatal in extremely low amounts and has pushed Alaska’s overdose rate to among the highest in the nation.
“Two milligrams of fentanyl is a fatal overdose. So if somebody’s picking up a syringe — that could be a deadly situation,” said Michael Carson, chair of the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force and vice president of the youth shelter and nonprofit MyHouse in Wasilla.
Though used needles are a problem everywhere, statewide options for safe needle disposal are limited, said Venus Woods, director of HIV prevention and education with the Alaskan Aids Assistance Association (also known as Four A’s) based in Anchorage.
In Fairbanks and Juneau, residents can contact their local public works divisions for instructions and resources for safely disposing needles, including free pick-ups. Four A’s has a syringe service program that’s active in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.
As part of the Four A’s program, people can contact the nonprofit to set up a time to bring in their used syringes, and receive new syringes and other supplies including cookers, cottons, tourniquets and alcohol swabs.
Homer also has a safe needle program called The Exchange, which is free and confidential. Under that program, users can bring in used needles and receive clean ones at twice-monthly exchanges.
Needle exchange programs are an important public health tool because they can help prevent the spread of infectious and sometimes deadly diseases including HIV and hepatitis C, along with staph infections, Woods said.
Exchanges are criticized by some for enabling drug use or increasing abuse, but the Centers for Disease Control found three decades of research has shown that comprehensive programs are “safe, effective, and cost-saving, do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections.”
Needle drop-off boxes are a less politically charged option for solving the problem.
Until now, no physical drop-off locations for used syringes existed in the state.
Alaska’s first one came to Palmer because of a dedicated former city official.
“What I noticed was — and a lot of other people noticed as well — was there’s a lot of syringes on the ground,” said Imran Chaudhry, a former interim Palmer City Council member, when asked how the project came to be. “It obviously became a very big health issue.”
Chaudhry, who grew up in Palmer, only served on the council for a few months in 2019. During that short time, he and others began looking into possible solutions, including a safe option for users to dispose of needles.
Chaudhry worked with a policy director in Portland, Oregon, who had implemented what seemed like a successful initiative in her city: a mailbox-like disposal box where people could safely get rid of used syringes.
He got a copy of the blueprint Portland used, and Palmer city leaders agreed it seemed like a good idea. When the pandemic arrived, the city balked at most non-COVID-19-related health costs, but local resident Joe Warren agreed to donate the initial $2,500 costs to kickstart the project, Chaudhry said.
The mailbox-like disposal site was finally was installed this month, from donated scrap metal welded together.
So far, the community response has been encouraging, Chaudhry said recently. He wants to get the word out to people that the disposal site is up and running. He’s also working with other communities around the state to see about setting up additional disposal sites there as well.
Woods, who praised the drop box program, said she hopes that in addition to expanded access to syringe disposal around Alaska, more sites start offering needle exchanges for safe supplies.
“I think from a public health standpoint, if you’re incorporating syringe disposal, why not go one step further and incorporate giving out supplies to people that use them?” she said.