John Howard Society of Durham Region
Mission: To reduce the impact of crime and its causes by providing a spectrum of effective prevention and intervention programs.
Main office: 905-579-8482, 75 Richmond Street West, Oshawa, Ontario, L1G 1E3

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Project X-Change Reduces Harm, Protects Public:

Apr 25, 2006
By Jillian Follert

OSHAWA -- The weathered sign outside Beth Whalen's office reads "harm reduction," but in many cases the help she offers behind the door is actually life saving.

At the Oshawa office of the John Howard Society (JHS), a cheerful Ms. Whalen welcomes a daily stream of people looking to exchange used syringes for clean ones, no judgment, no preaching.

She also dispenses condoms, sterile water, alcohol swabs, ascorbic acid, filters -- anything that makes life safer for intravenous drug users and others involved in at-risk activities.

Project X-Change started small as a pilot in 1992, and picked up steam in 1997 after it was granted official program status.

As word of mouth and funding continue to increase, so do the numbers. In 2001, 32,285 needles were given out and 31,395 came in. Last year, those numbers stood at 102,923 and 102,254 respectively.

"There is still a certain degree of controversy about what we do here," said Ms. Whalen, who is now the project manager. "Unfortunately, some people think we are condoning drug use. The reality is, people have made a choice to use and we're just trying to keep them, and the public, safe."

Project X-Change is offered at JHS offices in Oshawa, Bowmanville and Ajax, and through mobile outreach units. In addition to safely collecting used syringes and handing out harm-reduction supplies, the staff make referrals for medical care, addiction treatment, counselling, housing and other services, and provide educational materials promoting safer sex and injection drug use.

All aspects of the program are vital, but the needle exchange is big from a public safety standpoint. No clients are turned away, but Ms. Whalen said they strongly encourage dirty needles to be traded in for clean ones, potentially keeping thousands of syringes from being tossed in garbage cans or left in parks and ravines.

Despite their best efforts, syringes still turn up, especially at this time of year when students and volunteer groups are involved in massive litter cleanup efforts.

Ms. Whalen said it is essential for people to know what to do if they find a syringe and is concerned by the misinformation that persists.

"I hear people say things like 'wrap it in cardboard and throw it out,' or 'toss it in a dumpster,' and it just scares me," she said. "Think about the garbage man who could get stuck with a needle and have to deal with the pain and stress of not knowing what it might be carrying."

If a syringe is found, Ms. Whalen said people should ideally call the JHS or the Durham Region Health Department, both of which offer free pick up services. If the syringe needs to be moved immediately, tongs or heavy gloves should be used to pick it up barrel first, and a heavy plastic container should be used for disposal.

To request a syringe pickup in Oshawa call the JHS pager at 905-438-6870. For Bowmanville, Pickering, Ajax, Whitby and Port Perry call 1-888-245-1045.