Drug Patterns Uncovered through Wastewater

A team of researchers has mapped patterns of illicit drug use across the state of Oregon by sampling municipal wastewater before it is treated. According to a Science Daily article, their findings provide a one-day snapshot of drug excretion that can be used to better understand patterns of drug use in multiple municipalities over time.

Municipal water treatment facilities volunteered for the study to help further the development of this methodology as a proactive tool for health officials. Researchers from the University of Washington, McGill University, and Oregon State University collected single-day samples for 96 municipalities across Oregon and tested the samples for traces of methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA (ecstasy). They used analytical methods that were advanced at Oregon State University.

Using the samples—which represented 65 percent of Oregon’s population—the researchers found that index loads of BZE (a cocaine metabolite) were significantly higher in urban areas and below the level of detection in some rural areas. Methamphetamine was present in all municipalities, rural and urban. MDMA was found at quantifiable levels in less than half of the communities, with a significant trend toward higher index loads in more urban areas.

“This work is the first to demonstrate the use of wastewater samples for spatial analyses, a relatively simple and cost-effective approach to measuring community drug use,” said Caleb Banta-Green, University of Washington drug epidemiologist and lead author of the paper. “Current measures of the true prevalence of drug use are severely limited both by cost and methodological issues. We believe these data have great utility as a population measure of drug use and provide further evidence of the validity of this methodology.”

Researchers said that the study validates wastewater drug testing that could serve as a tool for public health officials, who could, for example, use the methodology to identify patterns of drug abuse across multiple municipalities over time. The researchers also pointed out that data used for this study are inadequate as a complete measure of drug excretion for a community or entire state because they looked at a single day, mid-week sample. Results might be altered depending on the day or time of year the sample was gathered.

“We believe this methodology can dramatically improve measurement of the true level and distribution of a range of illicit drugs. By measuring a community’s drug index load, public health officials will have information applicable to a much larger proportion of the total population than existing measures can provide,” said Banta-Green.

Currently, Banta-Green and colleagues are working on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine the best method for collecting data in order to get a reliable annual estimate of drug excretion for a community.

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