Old mailboxes become safe deposit boxes City uses containers as receptacles for needles

July 27, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Walking right up to the bright red mailbox, the Baltimore man glanced around, nervously pulled down the lid and dropped a needle inside.

Like other injection drug users, he has begun using a converted mailbox as a place to get rid of his dirty needles. The experiment, launched about a month ago on four city street corners, aims to create an easy way for addicts to dispose of their used needles, rather than tossing them in gutters, alleys and sidewalks. The boxes were donated by the U.S. Postal Service to the city, whose workers collect the needles weekly.

"It's better than throwing them on the ground. I have kids of my own," said the man, who declined to be identified. It was the first time he had used the box at Herbert and Longwood streets in the Walbrook area, where about 150 needles were collected last week.

About 600 needles have been collected. Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner, said the volume has been greater than he expected. The idea has been adopted in locations including Texas, Florida and Australia because of the proliferation of syringes used by drug addicts and diabetics, and the lack of safe disposal methods.

The Baltimore experiment is being studied in a $40,000, 12-month evaluation funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. David Vlahov, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said it expects results in a few weeks on whether any syringes carried the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

The three other city locations are 20th and Barclay streets, 20th and Boone streets and 25th Street and Brentwood Avenue. Depending on how the experiment works, other sites may be chosen. The project is community-driven: Community associations that want boxes can ask for them and dictate locations; areas that don't want them, won't get them, Beilenson said.

One neighborhood, Charles Village, didn't want a box because the community believed it would send the wrong message. But on the streets that have boxes, residents and drug users said they are pleased. Many reported seeing fewer syringes outside -- and therefore less risk their children will get stuck while playing.

"Usually the junkies just leave these needles anywhere. There used to be like 30 under that tree. Now they're gone," said Tyrone Carter, 17, who lives near one mailbox site.

Erik Williams, 15, said a 3-year-old girl who fell while running to him landed inches from a used syringe -- and its exposed needle. He picked it up, put it in a bottle and dropped it in the nearby box.

Thomas Barnes, 42, uses injection drugs. He said he used to break the syringes in half and put them in a bag in the trash. But now he will drop them in the red mailbox, he said.

"People think you [drug users] don't have morals or class," Barnes said. "We do care, and we throw them in there."

In focus groups with drug users, residents, pharmacists and police officers, investigators have found a positive response to the idea, but some concerns that the boxes might mark a neighborhood as a high drug use area.

In Charles Village, the community rejected the idea of a box at 22nd and Calvert streets. Phil Lee, chairman of crime and safety for the South Charles Village Partnership, also said the area has more crack than intravenous drug use, and putting up a needle mailbox would defeat revitalization efforts.

"We've come a long way," Lee said. "This just doesn't fit in with what we're doing right now."

Other problems have cropped up. Beilenson said that around July 4, someone tossed a firecracker in one of the boxes. Also, the lower part of one box was pried open, apparently with a crowbar. That box has now been double-padlocked to prevent break-ins.

Those who use the red boxes to drop needles are immune to prosecution under the exemption given the city's needle exchange program. Anyone carrying syringes that have illegal drugs can be arrested.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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