Drug testing whole cities

USA Today is reporting that a toxicology team have developed a method for drug testing a city’s water supply, indicating the level at which certain drugs are being used by the population.

The study was reportedly led by environmental toxicologist Prof Jennifer Field and was presented at the 2006 American Chemical Society conference.

The technique apparently involves taking a sample of water from the city’s sewer plant, and so doesn’t identify individuals, but can estimate the proportions of different drugs in the water to give a guide to which drugs are being used in what quantities.

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.

“We have so few indicators of current use,” said Jane Maxwell of the Addiction Research Institute at the University of Texas, who wasn’t part of the study. “This could be a very interesting new indicator.”

Unfortunately, it seems the American Chemical Society charge for access to the summaries of their conference presentations, but Scientific American has a little more detail on the procedure.

The news is reminiscent of a 2004 Environmental Agency study that found Prozac in UK sewage (incorrectly reported as the ‘Prozac found in drinking water’ story).

Link to USA Today article (via AADT).
Link to SciAm write-up.

2 thoughts on “Drug testing whole cities”

  1. This is based on statistic – and as such – pourly undersandet, (statistic, that is), as the tool it is – not the proof…., of anything!

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