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.