Views From the Front Lines: Bleach as a Harm Reduction Strategy for People Who Inject Drugs

Fall 2016

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We spoke to three service providers to find their views and insights on how they approach the use of bleach to rinse needles and syringes with their clients who inject drugs:

  • Laura Shaver, President of the British Columbia Association for People on Methadone, and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) Board Member
  • Hepatitis C Treatment Nurse, northern Ontario
  • Glen, client and advocate, HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS), Kingston, Ontario

Laura Shaver

Do you and/or your clients or peers ever use bleach to clean needles and syringes? Why or why not?

No. Because here at VANDU you bring in your used needles, they go into a sharps container and you can get new ones. So there is no need to use bleach. Bleach is really not safe. It really doesn't eliminate anything.

Here in Vancouver you can access needles. Lots of other places don't have access. I moved from Kelowna which is a couple hours away and it is absolutely the dark ages there. In Kelowna, people can't pick up harm reduction supplies and so they are finding used needles and they use them. When I got to Vancouver I couldn't believe that there were places for me to go.

Here at VANDU it's harm reduction -- we are not promoting drug use. What we are doing is promoting best practices for people that are already using. People are always going to use drugs. What we need to do is find ways for them to be able to do it safer.


Do your clients or peers ever ask you about using bleach to clean needles and syringes? What advice do you give them if they do?

It's not very often, but I would really advise them not to use it. I advise people to try and have clean supplies. As a very last option if you cannot access clean supplies, yes, you could use bleach and be very thorough with it. But I don't even like to give advice to use bleach in those scenarios. Because you never know if it's going to kill anything anyway.

That's why it's so important to be able to have harm reduction places to go to so that people can have access to clean needles and they don't have to try and use bleach to clean them. It's 2016, there is no reason for people not to have access to clean needles.

What are the most important ways to support someone to stay safe when using injection drugs, even if they don't have access to places where they can get clean needles and syringes?

Every 12 hours we are losing somebody to an opiate overdose. The best way to prevent overdose is to never use alone. Make sure that when you are with a partner that you have access to a naloxone kit. Health providers need to make naloxone accessible to everybody. There needs to be naloxone kits on every third light pole here in the downtown east side.

I try to make sure that I have some harm reduction supplies on me even if I'm not using them so that I can give them out to people that don't have clean supplies. I advise people to always try to carry more than they need -- especially if they know somewhere they get clean supplies is going to be closed. Places that carry clean supplies need to make sure that opening and closing times are posted and that there are places listed so that people know where else they can go to get supplies.

If you already know that you have HIV or Hep C, it's also important to take care of yourself. Make sure to take the medications and make sure to be careful when discarding needles and equipment and do it safely.

I want people to know that drug users are people. I am a current drug user myself. VANDU is an association of current or former drug users. We are advocating for people to have access to clean needles in areas where they don't. We have travelled all over B.C. to places like Kelowna, Nelson and Kamloops to talk about harm reduction and advocate for it.

Drug users need to be involved in all points of creation. They need to be involved in everything from the beginning -- from the ideas, to the programs to the outcomes. In certain places you can't access clean needles or education on drug use best practices, so how do we change that? Organize drug users to fight for those places. When you can organize, its big.

If we don't fight for it, then who is going to?

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication Prevention in Focus: Spotlight on Programming and Research. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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