Community editor and columnist Kris Capps is a longtime resident of Fairbanks and Denali Park. Contact her at kcapps@newsminer.com, in the office at 459-7546 or by cell at 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.

FAIRBANKS — For the first time, the ALPAR Fairbanks Youth Litter Patrol is finding the same kind of trash in areas all across town — used needles, the kind used to inject drugs. It’s scary discovery for teens and organizers who pick up litter during the summer season.

“Needles are a community-wide hazard,” said David Drumhiller, longtime leader of the program. “It’s everywhere. We can’t think of any place we go that we don’t find needles.

“I’ve been working at this for 32 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Until five or six years ago, we’d find a couple needles a summer. I just turned in a full box and just started a new box.”

“I found eight in a day, in one spot,” one teen piped up.

When needles are discovered, no one touches them with their hands. Teens tell adults, who use a special device that picks up the needles and drops them into a special sharps container donated by Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

“That keeps it at a distance, with little chance of being poked,” Drumhiller said.

As much as they hate finding all those needles, the teens all agreed it’s better for them to find them than for children or animals to stumble upon them and perhaps get poked.

The litter patrol is made up of 14- and 15-year-old teens. This is an actual job, not community service. Teens apply for the positions in the program, sponsored by Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. Community businesses also contribute to the program, which keeps two teams of teens busy during June and July.

Needles aren’t the only thing they pick up from area roadsides. This summer, the litter patrol reported picking up lighters, a .22-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun, a can of bear spray, a bottle of lemon vodka, a gun holster, a 1990 computer, lots of dirty diapers and an unopened hose for a kitchen sink sprayer.

Every once in a while, the group runs into lost dogs. They call the animal shelter when that happens.

The litter patrol probably delivers 300 to 600 pounds of trash per day to the landfill.

“It really varies from day to day,” said Hunter Livingston, a West Valley High School student. It also depends on the areas they focus on.

One thing the program has done is cause the litter patrol to examine how trash gets there in the first place.

“It changes the way I think about trash and dumping it,” Livingston said. “I don’t think it’s just people intentionally throwing stuff out the door. People are taking stuff and not properly securing it.”

“I saw my friend litter and I got mad and made them pick it up,” one of the litter patrol members said.

Organizer Leslie Drumhiller said this appears to be “one of the dirty years for trash in Fairbanks.”

“The Johansen (Expressway) has been really dirty this year,” she said.

The group always takes before and after photos of the areas they clean up, and those photos are eye-openers.

“We were in the middle of the Johansen yesterday,” Dave Drumhiller said. “It was just trashed. We picked up trash at that same place five or six times already this summer.”

Combined, all that trash probably didn’t even weigh five pounds, he said. But it made that whole section of highway look ugly. And when a mower came through and shredded some of that trash, it just added extra pickup time for the litter patrol.

If teens find cash, they get to keep it — as long as it is not in anyone’s wallet that can be returned. Found bicycles are brought to Joel’s Place if the owner can’t be found. Electronics are recycled through Green Star.

Sometimes drivers passing by honk their horns in support of the hardworking teens.

“I really appreciate that,” Domonique Helms said.

But back to the needles.

Apparently, the dike is a hot spot for users to dispose of their needles — “in between the rocks,” the teens said. Lots of needles are also up on Hagelbarger Road.

The group once ran into a firefighter walking his dog there when the group found hundreds of needles. They think someone just dropped a box of them. The firefighter came back and safely collected all the needles for proper disposal.

Last week was the final week for this season’s litter patrol and some of the teens are looking forward to next year.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Call her at the office: 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.