Dirty Old River

Memorable as the opening line of The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset, “Dirty Old River” seems as true as ever. Now, London volunteers find 1,000 dirty needles a year in a city weighing whether to adopt a supervised drug injection site.

Tom Cull has more than 1,000 reasons — discarded needles — for London to support a supervised drug injection site.

In this case, the river is the Thames in London, Ontario not our very own River Thames in London, England. However, this is a salutary lessor to us all and no doubt far from unique to our Canadian namesake.

“We pick them under bridges, along the watercourse, on the (river) banks, in parks,” he says.

Once a month, from the beginning of April to the start of winter, he and his crew of volunteers with the Thames River Rally pick up garbage along the river in London.

By the end of the cleanup season, he’ll have about 16 special needle bins full of discards, more than 1,000.

“We had one cleanup where we cleaned up 300 in one spot,” Cull says — and that’s in only a three-hour session.

“It’s a significant number. It says to me that a supervised injection site could greatly reduce the number of needles that we are picking up in parks and along the river course.”

Health officials last Wednesday released a feasibility study of supervised injection services in London. That report focused on the willingness of people who inject drugs to use a site or sites, and the general preferences of community agencies that would be involved in helping to set up the service.

Unsupervised drug injection use in London is related to high rates of HIV infection and hepatitis C, as well as overdoses and overdose deaths, the report said.

At the release of the report, politicians and other community leaders also noted how supervised sites could increase public safety, in part because of the problem of discarded needles in public places.

A supervised site would allow drug users to inject indoors with clean needles and medical care available, and keep discarded needles from the public.

But there’s more to discarded needles, Cull said.

“This feasibility report doesn’t talk about the environmental impact of medical waste, which is what this is,” said Cull. “So I think that going forward, as we have this conversation, as a community we should be talking about the environmental impacts that overlap with the social issues that we’re also trying to address.”

Cull has spent the past few days cleaning out the storage shed where he keeps the special needle bins, to get ready for next season.

He acknowledged he was shocked to see how many needles were found when he first started the river cleanups.

“Some people come and do a cleanup, and we don’t see them again and we understand that,” he said.

The river parkway has plenty of needle bins and the city has an active needle exchange program, Cull said.

“It’s just quite clear the status quo isn’t working in terms of recovering these needles.”



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