Your Sewer on Drugs

“Sewages is more than just filth. It’s evidence of our worst habits, everything from caffeine to cocaine, all ingested and flushed down the toilet. Now scientists are using wastewater to drug-test entire cities, and the results are sobering.”


“In 2001 Daughton proposed the novel ideal of testing for illicit drugs in wastewater…..Sewer epidemiology stalled stateside until 2006, when environmental chemist Jennifer Field of Oregon State University hit upon the idea as a way to help assess Oregon’s growing meth problem…Field began conducting a small proof-of-concept study, analyzing teaspoon-size samples of wastewater from 10 cities left over from an older environmental study. She found that a sample from a popular gambling destination boasted the widest range of drugs, while one from an affluent town tested positive exclusively for cocaine…Her team made headlines last august when they presented these and other findings at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston. Their results – similar to those of Zuccato and Fanelli – showed cocaine levels highest on the weekends while levels of methamphetamine remained constant. ‘once you’re hooked, you’re hooked,’ field points out.

“Today, Field is heading up the most ambitious community urinalysis test yet. She’s soliciting wastewater samples from 130 treatment plants throughout Oregon, which service approximately 80 percent of its 3.7 million resisdents…Oregon Health Sciences Universitiy, which is footing the $30,000 bill through its Medical Research Fund, stands to gain a trove of data about drug use in individual communities, since Field will have direct estimates from areas in which surveyors have surely never set foot.

“…For marijuana, the target molecule is THC, which is tricky in its owns right. ‘There is a wide variation in the amount of active ingredient in grass,’ Fanelli says. He relies on average potency, which can be gleaned from pot busts. Sewer epidemiologists must factor in all of these variables….And some people worry about how such methods might infringe on their civil liberties. One of the calls Field received after news broke about her proof-of-concept study, for instances, was from High Times magazine. ‘They wanted to know about privacy, she says.”

Source: Popular Science, March 2008

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