Testing the Waters for Illegal Drugs

By Johan73 · Jul 16, 2009 · Updated Jul 17, 2009 · ·
  1. Johan73
    This week, Northwest researchers published the results of a communal drug test. Scientists from Washington and Oregon sampled sewage treatment plants around Oregon. They checked the inflows for traces of cocaine, methamphetamine, and the party drug Ecstasy. KPLU's Tom Banse got a look at the findings and learned who's being tested next.

    If you flushed a toilet in Oregon on March fourth last year, chances are you took part in a drug test. Don't worry. The urinalysis was not traceable to individuals says Oregon State University chemist Jennifer Field.

    Jennifer Field: "We had 96 communities who voluntarily sent us a sample of their raw influent representing one day of material flowing into their wastewater treatment plants."

    All Field needed was one teaspoon to administer a citywide drug test. She describes this as a "proof of concept" experiment. Fellow researcher Caleb Banta-Green of the University of Washington gives thumbs up.

    Caleb Banta-Green: "What I'm most excited about is that it looks like this method does work."

    The team of researchers published a statewide consumption map for each illegal drug they tested for. Drug epidemiologist Banta-Green says methamphetamine was easily detectable in every single sewage sample. No place was spared.

    Caleb Banta-Green: "We sort of speculated that methamphetamine is probably pretty universally present. A few years ago, I actually thought it was higher levels in rural areas. But it looks like the use is kind of being spread out. In fact, we found that."

    Cocaine, by contrast, shows geographic variation.

    Caleb Banta-Green: "Cocaine use has always been thought of as really an urban phenomenon. We did find that there were higher levels and more likelihood to find cocaine in urban areas. But it was also present in some of the mid-sized cities. We found cocaine in the majority of cities."

    The party drug Ecstasy - or MDMA - was the third illicit drug mapped by the researchers. Its usage was much more limited, generally to urban areas or college towns.
    What the drug maps don't tell you is which city is the meth capital of the Northwest, or who are the #1 abusers of cocaine. City-by-city scores are available, but the researchers avoided rankings on purpose says Oregon State's Jennifer Field.

    Jennifer Field: "We are too early in our understanding of the use of this tool, so we just don't know what the actual error and uncertainty is between the various measurements. That's why we elected to group them into upper, middle, and lower thirds of the observations."

    It's certainly enough to tell a city's leaders what kind and how severe of a drug problem they have.
    The drug surveillance method is being repeated and fine tuned throughout this year using weekly samples from twenty sewage treatment plants across Washington and Oregon. They range from Seattle and Portland to Pasco and Corvallis. The next phase should illuminate variations in drug use over time... long term trends, seasonal differences... even which day of the week abuse peaks.
    Steve Freng is eager to get up-to-date information on the popularity of illicit drugs. Freng works on treatment and prevention for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Northwest program.

    Steve Freng: "It speaks to the manner in which treatment resources need to be organized. It speaks to the manner in which prevention messages can be crafted and delivered in the community and the activities involved with prevention can be focused."

    Freng says accurate data on illegal drug use in the community is hard to come by, especially for smaller cities and rural areas. Questionnaires and surveys are unreliable. The beauty of testing sewage is it doesn't lie.

    July 15, 2009 - SEATTLE, WA (N3) - Tom Banse reporting.

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  1. Johan73
    Swim thought this article was kind of interesting. Does any swiy's think this could lead to 'sewer tapping' a home, where they collect an individual home's sewage sample for drug analysis or something like that?

    It appears the sewage analysis isn't new since swim spotted 'sewage water analysis' as a tag:
  2. 354bottle
    Swim knows about sewer systems from toilet to teatment plant and he thinks it would be near impossible to test specific service lines. To tap these lines would require uncovering them somewhere between house and sewer main in the street or alley. It could be done if there is a clean out in the service line but testers would need permission to be on swiys property. The one place testers could sample is at a manhole. Occasionally a service line will dump directly into a manhole without going through the street main.

    From what swim has read about sewer testing, it is used to gather stats on drug usage from cities and towns etc. as opposed to individuals. A court order for a blood test is much easier for the government to get than checking a turd pipe that might be 15 feet under the street.

    It is amazing (or scarry?) what one tablespoon of raw sewage from millions of gallons will reveal.
  3. Alfa
    This will eventually have a major effect on drug policy, because this method has already proved to unveil how widespread and high drug use really is. In other studies it has turn out to be even 15 times higher than the official figures.

    Not only will it show how large the 'drug problem' really is, when those figures are eventually compared to the number of incidents, it should give a more realistic image of how dangerous specific drugs are.
  4. Alias: V
    Looking at it that way, maybe sewer testing is a good thing. If drug use is far more prevalent than originally imagined but drug crimes and drug incidents are fairly consistent, it may bring to question how necessary the drug war really is...:laugh:

    What am I thinking? Drug use is up? It must be suppressed immediately! Oh the depravity!
  5. Stimulants
    I've read about this perhaps a year ago. I believe they've been working on it for a while.
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