Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 15, 2017

Plum Island; Syringes.

Chapter Thirty-Three

A Totally Unfortunate Discovery

April 2, 2017



After taking photographs of the aftermath of winter storm Theseus I decided to lie on the beach to soak up the early April sun. A pair of surfers were riding the brilliant white breakers and a few families were enjoying the beach.


But suddenly a Newbury police officer entered the beach near the refuge and started to walk toward a couple walking two dogs. It was the day after the plover were supposed to arrive, so I figured I was about to witness a dog-walking bust.


But the officer seemed to be more intent on looking for something in the sand. Finally he pulled out some latex gloves and picked a syringe out of the wrackline. I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a picture and thought it was probably just an isolated incident anyway, so I continued to sit back and enjoy the sun.


But when I got home I saw that Walt Thompson had posted a picture of a needle he had taken just north of Newbury’s Center groin. Someone else mentioned that the year before, he had seen the Newbury Fire Marshall with a whole bag of syringes he had collected from Plum Island. And I remembered that when I first moved to Ipswich in 2001 found needles along the shore that I assumed had been from someone with diabetes.


Then on April 3rd I saw an indignant story on New Hampshire television about a Massachusetts group that wanted to string a boom across the Merrimack to prove that thousands of needles were flowing down the river from New Hampshire.


Everyone on our public forum tried to explain these observations based on past experiences. Most of us remembered the summer of 1987, when medical wastes washed up on the Jersey Shore when an unscrupulous company from New York had illegally dumped them off a municipal pier.


So our first assumption was that the needles probably came from people who used them for medical conditions. But this didn’t quite ring true. If a doctor prescribes you syringes for a medical condition he also gives you a plastic container to store the used needles in so you can return them to the hospital for disposal.


Companies have lucrative contracts for the safe disposal of such needles, why would they risk jeopardizing their business by doing something foolhardy like dumping just needles but no other medical wastes into the Merrimack River?


The other former incident that everyone remembered was when the wastewater treatment plant in Hookset New Hampshire had accidently released hundreds of thousands of wafer thin filter discs into the Merrimack. They continue to show up on beaches from Maine to Cape Cod after every storm.


So perhaps the needles came through upstream sewer systems. But why would someone with a medical condition throw them down the toilet when it would be so much easier to keep them in their plastic container?


That left the ugly alternative that perhaps heroin users who had flushed them down their toilets had used these needles. I’m sorry, but I don’t care how stoned you are, you don’t want to be strung out and have your toilet backed up as well.


Nope the unfortunate conclusion was that thousands of needles had been left on streets or in out of the way parks and beaches where people had bought and used drugs. Then storms had washed the needles off the streets and into the river where they had floated half-submerged from places like New Hampshire, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newburyport and Newbury down onto the beaches of Plum Island and beyond. It was an unsettling indicator of exactly how widespread and close to home our opioid epidemic had become.




William Sargent is a member of Storm Surge that helps support these articles. His book, Plum Island; 2016, is available in local bookstores and at





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