Chapter Five - Public Health and Syringe Safety

In this final chapter, Luer draws attention to two current public health issues: needle sharing, and biohazard waste disposal. Both are indirect consequences of inexpensive, disposable, plastic syringes.

Syringe sharing led to countless posters and free postcard warnings during the 1980s to early 1900s in response to the AIDS crisis.

Through this chapter, Luer wonders how far these reflect the nature of post-World War II society and its attitudes to the environment.


Perhaps of all the changes in syringes during my lifetime, inexpensive sterile and disposable plastic syringes have, since the 1950s, dramatically changed health care practices.

These, like their glass and metal predecessors, have undergone many small modifications. I suspect that the best remembered will be the single-dose ‘disposable’ ones associated with Covid-19 vaccines.

There is such need for these syringes, I guess! It is difficult to properly sterilise us who are made of glass and metal, which is so important in order to prevent problems with cross infection 

But a totally different side to disposable syringes emerged…

Coming into wider use during the ‘swinging sixties,’ these disposable needles met a rapidly changing social climate. As recreational drugs seemed to become more widespread, so did sharing syringes and needles. Many became left in public places, endangering others. 

One of the museum’s disposable syringes lived through the 1980s and saw outbreaks of AIDS at a time where there was no treatment. It was a time of intensified concerns over syringe and needle sharing.

Nowadays, sharing of needles seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many people. A significant difference since the 80s has been positive public health initiatives, notably ‘Needle Exchange’ (Needle Syringe) Programmes. Yet, they are perhaps only remembered by the general public when concerns are aired over the location of such programmes.

I have heard it said that such iniatives have met with relatively little opposition in the U.K. But could attitudes change to the detriment of public health? Could the ‘Not in my backyard’ attitude become more widespread?

Poster: A woman holding a needle (a “sharp”) and syringe, with diagrams for safe disposal of used needles; representing services of Mainliners for people at risk of AIDS. Colour lithograph by Photo Co-op, Glover/Hughes and Big Active Ltd. for Mainliners, 1990/1995. Wellcome Collection. In copyright.

Some of my disposable plastic Museum friends are only here because they escaped being used!

They were discarded in these relatively new containers, which have specific instructions for which box takes which item: see here the one for discarded needles and syringes!

These, however, are generally only found in medical facilities, unless acquired for home use such as by insulin users.

Of course, syringes discarded in public places remain a public health problem. A BBC news item detailed the collection of 2,100 discarded syringes during 2014 at an Exeter recycling plant: click this link

The FDA (USA) collaborated with Kwikpoint under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to develop free, publically available visual learning guides to help educate people on how to safely dispose of sharps and other needles.

Luer's closing comments...

Lets go back to an earlier quote from a physician in 1883: “It may well be questioned whether the world has been a gainer or the loser by the discovery of subcutaneous medication.”

Nowadays, few people may deny that societies have benefited from us hypodermic syringes. It is likely, however, our days are numbered! Scientists and technologists continue to search for less invasive ways of administering medications through the skin. Maybe we will only be used for sensitive injections, such as cosmetic surgery…

My story is one of developments in technology and therapeutics that helped to improve the well-being of society. But I have shown you some negative, even dark sides of us unattractive medical tools that have affected individuals, families, societies and the environment. 

I know dark sides can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in all areas of health care, but with greater information and sharing we can look to better understand our history and our health. So do not forget me, the small syringe, in your quest for that which is bigger and better! Thank you for listening to me witter on, do go and explore more… 

Find Us...

We are based at Exeter Community Centre in Exeter, where we have a storeroom and workroom. 

The nearest car park is Mary Arches Street, which is a five-minute walk.

Exeter Central train station is a ten-minute walk.

The bus station is a 15-minute walk with many buses stopping on the High Street which is ten minutes away.