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Wastewater Testing for Traces of Illegal Drugs Could Benefit Addiction Treatment
Researchers are encouraged by a study that examined untreated wastewater in municipal plants in Oregon for traces of cocaine, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. The study, published last year in the journal Addiction, was the first to use this method to test drug use geographically.
The researchers analyzed samples of wastewater from 96 water treatment facilities in Oregon, which represented the sewage of 65 percenet of the state’s population in one day. The study found that illegal drugs were found in a variety of communities, from small towns to inner cities.
More methamphetamine was found in rural areas than urban cities, and more cocaine and Ecstasy were found in urban areas.
The researchers said they currently use two systems to monitor drug use in urban areas: one is the DAWN Program, which tracks drug-related emergency room visits and drug-related deaths, and the other is the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program, which is a voluntary survey and urinalysis of those who have been arrested. The Treatment Episode Data Set also provides drug treatment data across the nation but isn’t extremely reliable because it mostly relies on data from public facilities. They added that large federal surveys such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health are biased when it comes to responses, and they don’t include many people who are likely to be using drugs, such as homeless people, those who are incarcerated, and people who are hospitalized.
John Newmeyer, a social psychologist in San Francisco and former drug counselor, said that he first thought of testing wastewater for drugs 15 years ago, and that drug use in small towns is hard to detect, as is use of drugs like Ecstasy that don’t involve a high number of arrests or overdoses.
Because wastewater includes metabolites of everything a person ingests, it gives a more accurate idea of whether drugs like Ecstasy have been used. He added that municipal wastewater includes the people that are often left out of large federal surveys because their waste flows into the same treatment facilities.
Caleb Banta-Green, co-author of the study, said that the wastewater method is great for measuring drug use in geographic locations, but you can’t tell how many people are using the drugs and at what rate. He added that you can’t track the waste back to individuals or even gender groups, because waste product is a chemical and not a biological molecule such as DNA.
The wastewater technique will hopefully raise awareness of the widespread use of illegal drugs, and could help people understand that drug use does not only occur in poor, inner city areas. It could also help to create better policies regarding drug treatment and prevention.
Source: AlterNet, Daniela Perdomo, Sewage as a Measure of Society’s Drug Use, January 15, 2010