May 20, 2010

Study: San Francisco's Syringe Exchange Program Reduces Improper Disposal of Needles by Drug Users

Media Contacts

Lynn Wenger
Lynn Wenger

SAN FRANCISCO– San Francisco’s syringe exchange program has reduced the risk to community members from infectious syringes left by injection drug users, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International, San Francisco State University, and San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The study, published online May 13 in the American Journal of Public Health, was based on a survey of more than 600 injection drug users in San Francisco and a visual inspection of 1,000 city blocks in areas heavily trafficked by drug users.

Drug users reported disposing of 80 percent of their needles through the syringe exchange program. To supplement survey results, the researchers used geographic information system software to map more than 2,100 city blocks in San Francisco heavily trafficked by drug users, and then visually inspected a random sample of 1,000 of those blocks and several other areas for improperly discarded syringes from February to June 2008.

The researchers only found 20 improperly disposed syringes in San Francisco’s high drug use areas, and the potential danger posed by these syringes was judged to be low because none of them had visible blood or exposed needles.

"There was understandable concern in the community about the potential for needle stick injuries to community members, sanitation workers, law enforcement officers and hospital workers resulting from injection drug users improperly disposing of syringes ,” said Lynn Wenger, a research epidemiologist at RTI and the paper’s lead author.“The syringe exchange program appears to have significantly lowered the risk of such injuries. The number of syringes we found was very small relative to the estimated 17,000 injection drug users in San Francisco."

"Our study clearly demonstrates the benefit to the community of syringe exchange programs," said Alex Kral, Ph.D., director of the Urban Health Program at RTI and the paper’s senior author. “However, the results also show that more can be done to reduce improper disposal such as lengthening the syringe exchange program hours of operation, installing public disposal boxes, promoting pharmacy-based disposal and providing indoor spaces for injection drug users to inject safely.”

The authors conclude that syringe exchange programs are providing a vital community service by collecting and properly disposing of thousands of potentially infectious syringes and as a result preventing improper disposal of syringes on city streets and parks.