In Boyd County, where staff at a local elementary school must search the playgrounds every day for dirty heroin needles, a group of middle school students decided to take action.
Students at Ashland Middle School invented a device that allows people to pick up dirty needles without getting stuck — and their invention has already landed the Eastern Kentucky school $50,000 in prizes.
The students said they did not have money on their minds when they started the project, though. They just wanted to help keep their younger siblings safe from a dangerous side-effect of Kentucky’s opioid abuse crisis.
“We have little brothers and sisters, and we don’t want them to come in contact with needles,” said Aubree Hay, a student who worked on the project. “Kids, they don’t know any better to not pick up a needle.”
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The project, entered in the Samsung Solve For Tomorrow contest, won first place in the statewide Kentucky competition, and the students will head to New York City in April to compete for the national $100,000 prize.
The school won $50,000 in Samsung technology for its first-place performance at the state level, and could win an additional $20,000 if its project collects the most votes in an online Samsung poll.
The idea began last fall with Ashland police officer Troy Patrick, who serves as the school’s resource officer.
Patrick pitched the idea of creating an invention to pick up needles to Ashland Middle School science and technology teacher Mike Polley, after community groups said they wanted to volunteer to pick up dirty needles around town.
“They’re talking about using spaghetti tongs and pliers and stuff to pick these things up,” Patrick said. “Without proper training for picking up a needle, it could be a bad thing.”
Patrick said the dangers of picking up used needles is two-fold: the sharp point could puncture skin and leave the victim at risk of contracting diseases such as Hepatitis C or HIV; and residue left on the barrel of the syringe from the powerful opioid carfentanil, which drug dealers sometime mix with heroin to create a more potent cocktail, could seep through a person’s skin and into the bloodstream.
“They took off and ran with it,” Patrick said. “They went leaps and bounds over what I proposed.”
Finding dirty needles around town is common.
At Crabbe Elementary School in Ashland, Principal Jamie Campbell said he and his staff have found 18 used needles on their two playgrounds this school year.
“Thankfully we haven’t had any student be injured by that, but one would be too many,” said Campbell, who has two sons at Ashland Middle School who worked on the project. “That would be the most heartbreaking phone call that I think I would ever have to make.”
Every morning, staff at Crabbe Elementary scan the playgrounds to find dirty needles before the children do.
“We shouldn’t have to risk that with children in our community,” said Isaac Campbell, a student who worked on the project. “We really wanted to help people, that was the main point.”
When the Ashland Middle School students heard about the project last fall, they immediately began to brainstorm a device that would help people safely pick up the dangerous needles.
In the end, after many test-runs and trial-by-error prototypes, they landed on a hollow plastic box, a few inches longer than a needle and about 3 inches wide, with one of the walls replaced with plastic teeth.
If a needle is lying in the grass at a playground at Crabbe Elementary, a custodian would place the box on top of the needle, squeeze, and the box would safely picks up the dirty needle.
The students produced the product with 3D printers from their school, and also created a smaller version that can fit inside an evidence tube for police investigations.
The students said they hope the product will eventually be patented and mass-produced.
Aubree, one of the students, said she hopes the project will help prove that Eastern Kentucky is home to people who are working hard to help alleviate some of the region’s problems.
“Our area, it’s often stereotyped to be unhealthy, uneducated and drug addicts,” Aubree said. “We’re trying to overcome those stereotypes and make our community a better place.”
The students also created an online database that people can use to report where they have spotted dirty needles. The students hope police and other public safety officials will use the database as part of an effort to collect those needles.
When asked if any of the students had a personal connection to the opioid crisis, student Eric Billups said “I think there’s a story just about all of us have to tell about that.”
In Boyd County last year, EMS services responded to 326 heroin overdoses, according to Boyd County EMS director Charles Cremeans.
The students also plan to speak at elementary schools to talk about the dangers of picking up dirty needles.
“I think it’ll help the kindergarteners and the elementary schoolers when we present to them because we’re kids, and it’s not just an adult telling them not to do something,” Aubree said. “This really happens. We could find a needle really anywhere.”