International Sharps Safety Awareness Month: One User's Life-Long Experience

A long-time user of sharps tells of his challenges with and gratitude for sharps.

Sharps are needles, syringes, scalpels, or other medical instruments that patients or health care workers use to perform a medical procedure. They typically cause a prick or lacerate the patient’s skin. Sharps are considered biomedical waste and must be carefully handled.

However, as we find out from a long-time user of sharps, dealing with their disposal is occasionally easier said than done. J. Thomas Dukes, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Akron, in Akron, Ohio, has lived with Type 1 diabetes (TD1) since 1972, and knows all too well that a place to dispose of sharps is sometimes nonexistent.

For the first day of International Sharps Safety Awareness Month, Infection Control Today® (ICT®) reached out to Dukes to describe his life with dealing with the challenges of sharps' disposal.

J. Thomas Dukes, PhD: I was diagnosed with TD1 at 16 in 1972, I was already too well acquainted with sharps. In 1970, after extensive tests, almost all involving blood tests with sharps, I was found to have spherocytosis, resulting in a splenectomy: more sharps!

Then, my grandfather got Type I. He lived with us for a while, and I gave him his shots until he learned to do that himself. Good training for what awaited me!

For over 50 years now, I have lived with sharps in all kinds of forms, including lab and hospital blood tests and routine vaccinations. Of course, my primary experience with sharps comes through daily, multiple injections of life-saving insulin.

I was lucky to come along just after disposable syringes were introduced. (I’ve met a couple of people who came up under the old system of boiling syringes and needles, etc. Ugh.) Of course, the challenges were 2-fold: how to give myself shots discreetly and how to dispose of the syringes and needles.

For many years, I would excuse myself just before a meal with others, “shoot up,” then return. Sometimes I would cap the syringe and throw it in the trash. Other times, I would put it in my pocket—diabetes is a disease of pockets, my friends—take it home, and put it in the trash there. As social rules relaxed, I would shoot up, unobtrusively I hope, at the table, then put the used, capped syringe in my pocket.

This sometimes led to the caps coming off and my getting stuck in the thigh or finger when I took the syringe out of my pocket. Ouch!

About 10 years after I was diagnosed, I was in Chicago, spending a long weekend with a friend. I miscounted my syringes and found myself without any before we were to go off to Saturday night supper, and none could be rescued from the garbage because I bent the needles so they could not be used by others. We went to a drug store, only to be told I could not buy syringes without a prescription. I was in a real jam as home then was West Lafayette, Indiana, where I was in graduate school at Purdue University, almost 3 hours away.

The only thing to do was to go to a hospital emergency department. They would either have to give me a script for the syringes or admit me to give me a shot. Rather than do a lot of paperwork, a wise nurse took me to talk to a resident physician. After the resident asked me several questions related to TD1—and listening to my extended answers—she said, “You either have Type 1, or you are the smartest junkie I’ve ever met.” She gave me the script, we got my bag of syringes, then headed off to a wonderful meal.

I entered another challenge with sharps when home glucose testing became readily available, about 12 years after I was diagnosed with Type 1. We were to use one lancet for every test. They were not major sharps, until, of course, you stuck yourself accidentally with a used one!

As the culture became more conscious about medical waste and the dangers sharps posed to others, I adopted different measures. Rather than buy the pricey sharps disposal boxes, I simply resorted to using old milk jugs, detergent containers, or the plastic boxes the cats’ treats came in. I would screw on the cap of these containers when full and put them in the trash.

Through the years, I have had misadventures. A capped syringe I accidentally left in a sport coat pocket pricked a worker at the dry cleaner. The used, capped syringes, as well as new ones, have fallen out of my pockets to be found—or not—by friends or, if I were walking and one fell out, by a stranger. Syringes have dropped onto the floor from my pocket while I am sitting at a meeting or in a restaurant. I have lost a few syringes that way but not many. I try to keep careful count.

But between using all the syringes and the lancets, I am sure I have lost track of a few. Right now, there is an unrecoverable syringe in the well of the elevator door of my building. Is it one of mine? I don’t know!

When I tried the insulin pump several years ago (disaster), I still had sharps to dispose of. I am about to try the pump again. I don’t know how the new models work, but I suspect sharps are not out of my life.

To my knowledge, I have never lived in a place where the law required [individuals] like me to keep sharps in certain kinds of containers and dispose of them in certain ways. However, some years ago, a custodian reported me for throwing my capped syringes in the trash. Turns out, the university had rules about such things. Health and Safety began dropping off sharps’ containers, then picking them up and replacing them when I called. This practice was marvelous but stopped with the pandemic. When we went back and I asked for the same thing, I was told I would have to file for formal accommodation, get a doctor’s letter, etc. So, I am back to collecting my capped sharps and lancets, this time in baggies, and bringing them home.

I am very, very lucky to have survived so long with TD1 and with, to date, so few side effects. But when I say sharps are a pain, I don’t mean physically—the shots are nothing, the pricks from blood sugar tests not much worse—but disposing of them systematically for the safety of all can be difficult. I am also conscious that I and millions of others are contributing to medical waste. But given the alternative—

I’ll stick with the sharps!