Sewage testing pinpoints drug use in communities

Minute amounts of illegal substances can be detected, making surveys suspect

Dan Burgard, an associate chemistry professor, knew students tried to get an edge. But he didn’t know about the “study drug”.


“I was walking with a student,” Burgard said, “and they bemoaned that it wasn’t students cheating nowadays to get ahead but that they were taking Adderall,” a potent amphetamine used to treat attention disorders.

Burgard had an idea: let’s test the campus sewage. What he and his students at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, found confirmed their suspicions.

“The amphetamine levels go through the roof during finals,” Burgard said.

Scientists, increasingly able to detect minuscule amounts of compounds, have begun to test sewage to gauge communities’ use of illegal drugs. When people take drugs, the substances are either unchanged or the body turns them into metabolites before they’re excreted.

Testing sewage a relatively recent technique

“It amazes me it wasn’t really until 2005 that anyone had really done this or thought about doing this; now articles are constantly coming out about testing wastewater for drugs,” Burgard said. “With the technological advancements, this field is just going nuts.”

Though nascent, such research could help tackle the drug problem across America, said Caleb Banta-Green, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington.

“If you can look at drug trends through wastewater, you can have a conversation with your community and try to make changes. And then, testing the wastewater after such changes, you can see if you’re having an impact,” Banta-Green said.

International tests show drug-use trends

Sewage tests, particularly in Europe, are starting to paint a picture of drug trends in various countries and cities:

• In London, cocaine and ecstasy spike on weekends while methadone is used more consistently.

• In Italy, cocaine use has declined while use of marijuana and amphetamines has increased.

• In Sweden and Finland, people use more amphetamines and methamphetamines and less cocaine than other European cities. Also, in Finland, stimulants were more common in large cities.

• In Zagreb, Croatia, marijuana and heroin were the most commonly found illicit drugs, but cocaine and ecstasy showed up more frequently on weekends.

• In Oregon, cocaine and ecstasy are more common in urban than in rural wastewater according to a 2009 study.

• During Superbowl weekend in Miami in 2010, drug levels in sewage did not differ much from a normal weekend.

• In three anonymous Canadian cities, cocaine was the most widely detected drug, while ecstasy levels were much lower than expected, according to a 2011 study.

Burgard estimates that more than 20 such studies have been conducted in Europe over the past decade. In comparison, only a few have been conducted in North America.

Banta-Green said Europe got started with this research earlier but it’s starting to gain more traction in the United States. He is writing a paper based on data he collected from 20 U.S. cities.

Wastewater tests better than surveys

Wastewater doesn’t tell you who’s using, how they’re using it, or why they’re using it. Also, by looking at amounts, you don’t know if you have “100 heavy users or 1,000 light users”, Banta-Green said.

Banta-Green cautions that it’s also important to not take one sample in a community—without previous samples or context—and try to draw conclusions about drug use.

But despite such limitations, the technique has advantages over quantifying drug use with surveys, which Burgard called “highly suspect”. Given the illegality and stigma of drug use, those surveyed may not always tell the truth, he said.

Testing sewage also covers entire populations across racial, age, gender, and economic statuses, Banta-Green said.

And wastewater doesn’t lie.

“Increasingly, people have no idea what they’re even taking,” Banta-Green said. “I was looking at police evidence for the drugs in the Seattle area that were supposed to be ecstasy. The main ecstasy ingredient was only present in 26 of the 81 drugs. Sewage can tell us something about these ingredients.”

Ethical and legal questions arise

But some legal and ethical concerns remain.

This type of research has never been litigated, said Leo Beletsky, an assistant professor of law at Northeastern University who specializes in drug policy. “From a constitutional standpoint, it gets at what your expectation of privacy is: Fourth Amendment concerns,” Beletsky said.

One parallel legal issue is whether or not people have an expectation of privacy with their trash. Legal cases have basically decided that the police can go through garbage and not need a warrant. “So when you flush your toilet, you may be waiving your privacy rights,” he said.

Beletsky said legal issues might arise if the techniques become more sophisticated and researchers could identify if the drugs were coming from certain institutions or even a specific household.

Legal issues aside, there are some ethical concerns, said Jeremy Prichard, a professor of law at the University of Tasmania who wrote an article about the ethics of testing sewage for drugs. Since it’s about illegal drugs, the research could attract media attention and stigmatize certain communities, Prichard said. He supports guidelines for researchers to protect people and communities.

“I don’t think anyone’s saying that this will replace surveys,” Burgard said. “But with surveys there’s manpower, culling the data, the time to administer the surveys.

“We can run down to the treatment plant and tell you what drugs we find that afternoon.”

Comments (5) Add New Comment
Canadian Citizen
This professor didn't test for alcohol because Canada is in denial that alcohol is a drug and that they are drug users and abuser when they get high on their ethanol fix.

Researchers that study substances and substance users have scientifically determined that legal ethanol is the worst substance of all legal and illegal drugs, in terms of negative consequences for the user and society. Scientists found that most of the harm done by the consumption of ethanol is suffered by others, not the alcoholics themselves.

This scientific research was published in the Lancet. and titled Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. It concluded that Ethanol is worse that all other substances including Heroin, Methamphetamine, Cocaine and Tobacco for the user and even more damaging for society.

The sanctification of ethanol, by the Christians during mass, has helped rationalized the racist and classist war against cannabis consumers and growers. Alcoholic dominant cultures falsely portray their genocides of cannabis subcultures as a war between the morally superior alcohol consuming mainstream culture and a demonized, 'immoral' degenerate cannabis subculture.

Scientifically, ethanol is an toxic, organic solvent similar to gasoline; and thus the alcohol consuming dominant cultures of Canada, and most other countries, are just pretentious gasoline sniffers. Health Canada, and its alcohol using bureaucrats, assume, without any scientific evidence that they are superior to the consumers of scientifically proven much safer and beneficial cannabis.
Rating: +8
p lg
I more interested in finding out the levels of prescription drugs going into our waste water stream including birth control and antiobiotic drugs. At what point do these drugs impact not only human health but aquatic health?

As well, how does this research on illicit drugs in our sewers intend to be used? More war on drugs? Are they studying it because that's where the research dollars are easily obtained? Are there far better ways to use research dollars? Just what's in our drinking water and how is it impacting human health?
Rating: 0
Dale Brabham
This approach can be an important contribution to understanding what a community is using both for legal and illegal drugs. Leaders who have responsibility for maintaining the health of the community need this information.
The privacy issue is a red herring. People should not be putting substances into the sewer that have potential for ecological damage. The question is whether any of the substances survive the waste treatment process and go into our waterways. At this time people are still flushing unused prescription drugs down the toilet, so education is far behind. A right to privacy is not a right to soil the environment. Let's avoid putting drugs into the sewer.
It would be a shame if this important information were to be prevented or suppressed because of fear of use for police action.
Rating: +4
Alan Layton
Dale Brabham - good question about waste water treatment and pharmaceuticals. There have been a number of studies on common pharmaceuticals, like Ibuprofen, and not only are many found in our fresh water supply but some have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms. A quick search will turn up quite a bit of information.
Rating: -2
Martin Dunphy
To all:

This link to an earlier article will provide some info about unregulated chemicals (pharmaceuticals, industrial compounds, etc.) found in drinking-water facilities.
Rating: -1
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