Place  /  Retrieval

Hypodermics on the Shore

The “syringe tides”—waves of used hypodermic needles, washing up on land—terrified beachgoers of the late 1980s. Their disturbing lesson was ignored.

From their first appearance in the U.S., the syringe tides were a ready-made tabloid sensation, and a shocking visualization of the perils of a throwaway society. In the years that followed, major efforts would be taken to reduce Americans’ solid-waste production and protect its shores. But the steel-and-plastic flotsam raised a more specific warning, too, about the increasing and deliberate wastefulness of the American health-care system. That concern went unheeded at the time. Nearly four decades later, its implications are harder to ignore. The long-term ecological costs of single-use medical devices can now be seen on a planetary scale.

The disposable syringe was a relatively new form of waste in the 1980s, and a new kind of environmental threat. Sure, a busted sewer main could put bacteria in your drinking water—but you could always boil your water just to be safe. Aerosolized dioxins from an incinerator might lead to pulmonary disease—but those with means could make sure they lived in a “nice” neighborhood that wasn’t anywhere near the exhaust plume. A hypodermic needle, however, is designed to violate the barriers that keep you separate from the outside world, regardless of income, race, and ethnicity. It is engineered to transgress, to deliver contents from the outside in. When the syringe tides struck, they brought the anxiety that the contents of another person’s body might spill over into and contaminate your own—or perhaps your child’s—through a sudden prick on a sunny day.

When the syringe tides struck again in the summer of 1988—like a terrible blockbuster sequel—the consequent media event spread fear even more effectively than the original. New York City’s “superboom” had failed and shorefalls of used syringes were now spreading north and south, devastating coastlines from Massachusetts to North Carolina, with regular beach closings all summer. Newspaper coverage called to mind the tagline for Jaws 2: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …”

The disposable syringe became an object of terror, a mechanical viper hidden in the sand. In the late 1980s, AIDS was still understood to be a universal death sentence, and one tied directly to the bodies and bodily fluids of other people, especially other kinds of people: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitian immigrants, hemophiliacs—the infamous “4-H Club” of at-risk populations. Syringes could now be understood as vessels for their germs, and a man-made vector for increased transmission.