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Wastewater Reveals Drug Abuse in a Community

One of the most reliable ways to find out how people in any given community are using drugs is to perform a chemical analysis of their wastewater. This kind of research is cheaper and more objective than the traditional ways of attaining data on drug usage from police departments, hospital emergency rooms, or by conducting surveys.

It is well known that people notoriously lie about their drug use to government researchers. Police records tend to over-report street drugs, such as crack cocaine, and under-report drugs found at private parties, such as Ecstasy and powdered cocaine. Records kept at morgues, hospitals, and coroners’ offices often under-report deaths due to drug abuse. For example, they will attribute a cause of death to an automobile accident, rather than to the drug use that impaired the driver, which in turn resulted in a fatal accident.

Wastewater research is more popular in Europe than in the United States or Canada. One disadvantage of using this method is there is no way to determine why there are increases in the amounts of drugs in sewage water. It could be that more people are using drugs, or that the same people are using drugs in larger amounts.

A recent study of wastewater and drug usage conducted in Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom found that cocaine use tended to increase on the weekends, although marijuana was consistently used on a daily basis.

One scientist at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute in Seattle is studying drug abuse through wastewater analysis. Dr. Caleb Banta-Green and his colleagues looked for the presence of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine in the wastewater of 96 areas in Oregon. Cocaine use was found to be much higher in cities as opposed to rural or small-town communities, but methamphetamine was popular in all areas.

“I think it is a very, very big advance in terms of trying to get a good reliable and valid measure of what’s going on in entire communities,” according to Dr. Banta-Green. “PTA’s can decide, gee, is this really an issue in our community? Or, Ecstasy is really not here. Yeah, we heard about one bad case, but that was an aberration. Really we just need to focus on alcohol, for instance.”