By Christina Hager

LOWELL (CBS) – The opioid epidemic that has long been considered a health crisis is now a major environmental threat as well. Hypodermic needles are being left by drug users in parks, playgrounds, and along one of Massachusetts largest waterways – the Merrimack River.

“We find needles with blood still in them,” said Rocky Morrison. He heads up a group called the Clean River Project, and considers himself a steward of the 125-mile-long Merrimack. “Some of the needles, believe it or not, the drug is still in them.”

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The river is a drinking water source for well over a half-million New Englanders, and Morrison says it has become a dump for drug users’ hypodermic needles.

“These two jugs came from Lowell, Massachusetts,” he said, holding up two large water cooler jugs filled with more than 2,200 needles. A smaller container labeled “Andover” sat next to them. “Andover shorelines are a magnet.”

Two water jugs filled with needles collected along the Merrimack River in Lowell (WB-TV)

To see for ourselves, Morrison brought WBZ’s I-Team to a spot through some woods, overlooking the Merrimack River.

“The whole ground’s just covered with needles,” he said, pointing to piles of needles at an abandoned homeless encampment on the river’s edge in Lowell. “These needles will float. We don’t want this blowing into the river. We don’t want kids coming down and hurting themselves.”

We also took a boat ride to more abandoned homeless encampments, across the river from a Lowell public beach and the UMass Lowell boathouse.

Click a community below for total reports of needles along the Merrimack River in Lowell.

A recent HIV outbreak in the Lowell and Lawrence area makes the needle pollution more alarming than ever, according to Dr. David Sidebottom, who heads up Lowell General Hospital’s infectious disease department.

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“HIV, when they have tested it, can actually live in dry blood spots for 5 or 6 days,” he said. “Many addicts will lick the needles, so there could be saliva on the outside. They’re sticking it into their vein, so there’s going to be blood within that.”

The discarded hypodermic needles are a side effect of the opioid epidemic that is causing problems across the region. In Arlington, two young girls were pricked at their school in March. In Boston, an angry father brought a bucket full of needles from a Roxbury playground to a community meeting. “I found a fully loaded needle that had about five cc’s of heroin in it,” he shouted.

Those who have been inadvertently pricked say it’s a living nightmare.

“I had a number of shots,” said Bobby Rowland, who was stuck by a syringe someone threw out a car window in South Boston several years ago.  “I was worried for a long time, thinking… what happens if this guy had AIDS or something like that.”

Back at the Merrimack River, Morrison pointed out the impact of the water’s flow.

“This is a giant conveyor belt moving down river, moving everything with it.” He said the river moves the pollution through 16 cities and towns before finally spilling its problems into the Atlantic Ocean near Plum Island and Salisbury Beach.  “They [needles] end up on our shorelines.”

The Lowell City Council has asked City Manager Eileen Donoghue to look into cleaning up the homeless encampments. She says she is working with the Clean River Project to remove debris from the river.  Lowell also created a new job position called a “needle coordinator”, and a task force to look into homelessness solutions.

Needles litter the banks of the Merrimack River (WBZ-TV)

Last summer, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker approved a $2.4 million bond bill, with a quarter million dollars earmarked for a skimming boat the Clean River Project would use to clean the Merrimack. That money has not yet been released.

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Records the I-Team obtained show cities and towns bordering the Merrimack River took hundreds of calls to pick up stray needles this past year. One caller from the town of Merrimac reported finding more than 1,340 needles near the river. Some other communities have not set up a system to track such calls.

Christina Hager