“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.”
This kind of drug testing could be used to help with drug problems throughout the country, Caleb Banta-Green, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington, said.
“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 explained.
Sewage tests have already been going on across Europe and have given authorities there a portrait of what drugs are popular where:
• 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 methamphetamine and less cocaine than other European cities.
• 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.
A few tests done in North America have also told some interesting stories:
• 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.
While more than 20 studies on sewage have been conducted in Europe over the past decade, 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 traction States side.
Studying wastewater has its disadvantages, like not telling you who’s using, how they’re using, or why they’re using. It also can’t tell you if a community has 100 heavy users or 1,000 light users of a drug.
But it also has some advantages over quantifying drug use with surveys, which can be suspect due to the illegality and stigma of drug use prompting people taking the surveys to not always be honest about their drug use.
Another advantage to testing sewage is that it also covers entire populations across racial, age, gender, and economic statuses.
And wastewater can also tell you about the ingredients in drugs.
“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.”
And although this type of drug testing is picking up steam, it also raises privacy and ethical concerns.