King County: ‘Syringes can be found nearly anywhere in parks'

King County filed a lawsuit Friday against Purdue Pharma, the company behind the painkiller OxyContin, blaming the company of fueling the opioid epidemic here.

The suit also alleges “the opioid epidemic has contributed significantly to the homelessness crisis in King County.”

The lawsuit descries describes deplorable conditions in parks, including syringes found daily this summer on a children’s play area at a park in White Center, used needles daily on ball fields, and homeless encampments filled with human waste that destroyed years of environmental restoration work.

The court filing provides the most vivid details released to the public about the extent of the problem.

But even if King County wins the suit, a financial gain from the lawsuit is likely years away – and it’s not clear how county officials can adequately address the exploding problem of homelessness, biohazardous waste and syringes that often create a public safety risk.

The lawsuit states that tens of thousands of needles still litter local parks, putting staff at risk and requiring them to provide reduced services to park-goers to avoid the chance of injury.

Sheriff’s deputies and Metro employees also are repeatedly exposed to dangers, and Metro has collected more than 650 pounds of the roughly pen-size needles since 2013.

The lawsuit is separate from suits filed by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and other U.S. cities.

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and are dedicated to being part of the solution,” Purdue Pharma Director of Public Affairs John Puskar said in a written statement. “As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge.

“Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.

“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the companies in the suit made billions of dollars off the medications.

"Now they need to pay for the consequences of their actions," he said. "And that's not a short term thing either. This crisis is going to be with us for years, for decades."

‘Dangers to all who use the park’

One photograph included in the lawsuit shows a red bucket packed with used syringes. Text above it says those were all found in a single day in one of the 200 parks managed by the King County Department of Natural Resources.

“Syringes can be found nearly anywhere in parks,” the lawsuit reads, “in bathrooms, on trails, and even on playgrounds.”

Workers have found syringes affixed to bathroom doors. One, in March 2017, was found buried in the dirt facing up. And over the past decade, “the number of people living in King County parks has exploded,” officials wrote in the suit.

Where county staff found an encampment roughly once a year a decade ago, encampments are now found weekly – and they’re larger.

“Nearly every encampment in King County parks has used syringes, which present dangers to all who use the parks,” the lawsuit states.

The county says there are tens of thousands of needles and syringes that need to be safely disposed of at encampments, and the encampment problem also has spread into natural areas adjacent to regional trails and other open spaces.

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Encampments contaminated with human waste

Encampments are often contaminated with human waste, and removing the biohazardous material typically takes one or two days, five people, and may require use of a dump truck and tractor.

In Seattle and King County, encampments often quickly return.

“Many of the encampments have undone significant land restoration projects,” the lawsuit states.

One was the Auburn Narrows habitat restoration projects installed over the last decade. Native species were replanted on 65 acres of the site – and most of those were damaged.

“Significant portions of restoration projects were seriously damaged, as trees has been cut down, native planting ripped up, and wetland habitat was filled with trash.”

A picture shows cut trees in the area lined with trash.

The problems, county officials said, also have spread to Metro’s 214 bus routes.

Since Metro began tracking syringes, categorized as sharps, from properties it manages staff has disposed of more than 650 pounds of syringes.

“Gathering and properly disposing of nearly a third of a ton of syringes in four years came at the expense of significant employee time, during which those employees were exposed to risks of needle sticks and related dangers.”

Syringes found daily on children’s play area

Every day in summer 2017, syringes were found on the children’s playland area of Steve Cox Memorial Park in White Center. Syringes were also found daily at two locations on the ball fields.

“Daily the police encountered or were called to respond to drug-related activities at several sites across the park,” the lawsuit states. “More than a dozen homeless encampments existed throughout the summer. And 911 was called at least seven times to report an overdose or drug-related emergency.”

The problems have led to less services for county residences. The park now closes and locks the stadium at night. Other parks also have made changes.

“Tragically, the opioid crisis is taking over the county parks.”

Constantine said there's no way the companies named in the lawsuit can repay the families that have lost a child.

"But they can pay for the law enforcement. They can pay for the public health, they can pay for the cleanup of our parks that are littered with hypodermic needles. They need to step up to the responsibilities for paying for the crisis they've caused."

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