A new method for tracking drug use trends finds itself in the sewer, as Oregon State University scientists are sampling wastewater of 10 unnamed US cities, in what they describe as “community urinalysis”.
The science behind the testing is simple. Nearly every drug – legal and illicit – that people take leaves the body. That waste goes into toilets and then into wastewater treatment plants.
“Wastewater facilities are wonderful places to understand what humans consume and excrete,” Field said.
In the study presented Tuesday, one teaspoon of untreated sewage water from each of the cities was tested for 15 different drugs. Field said researchers can’t calculate how many people in a town are using drugs.
She said that one fairly affluent community scored low for illicit drugs except for cocaine. Cocaine and ecstasy tended to peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, she said, while methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week.
Field said her study suggests that a key tool currently used by drug abuse researchers – self-reported drug questionnaires – underestimates drug use.