The Grapevine

Can Blue Light Help Hinder Drug Use In Public Bathrooms?

When it comes to strategies for reducing drug use in a community, blue indoor lighting is a fairly unique one.

Public bathrooms at convenience stores or gas stations can be a common place for drug users to inject themselves in privacy. They have no surveillance, are easily accessible, and may not require a purchase to use. In the midst of the opioid crisis, businesses have been concerned, considering several ideas to target the problem.

The idea of using blue lights in these bathrooms relies on the color making it harder for users to locate their vein, which would "disrupt the process," according to Read Hayes, a researcher from the University of Florida. "The hardest-core opiate user still wants to be accurate. They want to make sure the needle goes in the right spot."

However, research conducted over the years was not too encouraging, often questioning the efficacy of the idea.  A small study from 2010 found less than half the participants were deterred by fluorescent blue lighting.

Another study from Canada, published in 2013, interviewed current and ex-drug users on how they perceived the deterrent. Many believed it would not prevent the urge to inject, and could actually worsen the problem.

"Participants perceived that, by making veins less visible, blue lights make injecting more dangerous. By dispersing public injection drug use to places where it is more visible, they also make it more stigmatizing," the authors wrote, noting that blue lights were interpreted as a form of "symbolic violence." 

Professor Margaret Hamilton, an executive member of the Australian National Council on Drugs, agreed that the lights would facilitate poor injecting technique. Others may also be burdened by the change, she said, explaining how cleaners and disabled people may face safety issues due to poor vision under the lighting. 

However, this has not stopped the practical implementation being tested at many places over the past year. Turkey Hill Minit Markets, a chain of convenience stores, implemented the idea at numerous outlets in collaboration with the Loss Prevention Research Council. 

Matt Dorgan, division asset protection manager for the chain, found that they were highly effective despite the results of previous research. "It’s a pretty dramatic reduction. We haven’t had a single overdose," he said.

Sheetz gas station, with the support of the New Kensington Police Department, also installed blue recessed lighting in 2017. The company spokesman Nick Ruffner reported seeing "positive steps in the right direction," after doing so. The reaction was similar among businesses in Huntington, West Virginia.

Since the idea is only being tested at local levels, it may be hard to pin down exactly how effective it can be in the long run without consequences. Health experts supported other forms of intervention such as needle disposal containers. Retailers were also encouraged to seek guidance from the law enforcement and addiction recovery organizations.