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Public Employee Press

Taking on clean up at Bronx’s “needle park”


To keep St. Mary’s Park clean for Bronx residents, the Dept. of Parks and Recreation is like an army fighting an uphill battle in a war on hypodermic needles.

“Keeping the kids safe and protected is most important,” said veteran Local 983 Associate Parks Service Worker Teisha Smith. “The biggest risk is a kid picking up used needles and playing with them.”

Parks workers in the Bronx collect as many as 5,000 syringes a week tossed by people who shoot heroin in city parks, according to the Daily News. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the installation of kiosks, bright red boxes, in public parks so addicts can safely deposit used syringes as part of a needle exchange program. But union leaders said the needles don’t always get exchanged. Instead they are discarded haphazardly by the thousands.

A public health crisis

“The problem at St. Mary’s and in other city parks is bigger than just keeping parks clean, it’s really a public health crisis that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene needs to address because used needles are a biohazard,” said Local 983 President Joe Puleo. “Workers — or anybody — picking them up risk contracting hepatitis, HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.”

Near St. Mary’s is a drug clinic with a needle exchange program. In addition to promoting the kiosks, Parks managers have engaged the clinic’s staff to help curtail the number of discarded syringes littering the park. “We have to work much harder to stay on top of the problem,” Smith said.

“The situation is worse,” she said, “at Patterson Playground inside a close-by housing project. That park is dubbed ‘Zombie land’ because addicts shoot up day and night with no shame.”

The union has pressed Parks to provide training and protection for Locals 1505, 983, and 1508 and other members tasked with picking up dirty needles. Lillian Goodwine, of the union’s Health and Safety Unit, said, “The union is working diligently with the Dept. of Labor’s PESH Bureau to ensure the agency adheres to all criteria specified in the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard to ensure members’ safety while they perform this task.”  

“Parks should offer a significant differential,” Puleo said, “a monetary incentive to workers who pick up needles and create a unit solely responsible for picking up needles like other agencies have.”

Some Parks workers may hesitate to volunteer to pick up needles at the risk of getting pricked. “If you are stuck, you have to start the AIDS cocktail immediately for six months and no one wants that,” Smith said.

“I’m proud of the District 1 deputy chief and regional manager,” Smith said, “they have added more unionized Parkies — new hires — and more training and overtime assignments to keep St. Mary’s clean. A lot of us are parents who live in the community and take pride in a maintaining a safe, clean park.”