Sewage doesn’t lie. And it only takes a teaspoon to administer a citywide drug test. Researchers at Oregon State University have started testing sewage samples to estimate your community’s consumption of illegal drugs.
Treatment plant operators across Oregon are cooperating. Sampling at Washington treatment plants could start later this year. We get more on the how and why from correspondent Tom Banse in Corvallis.
|Dr. Jennifer Field and grad student Aurea Chiaia-Hernandez prepare samples for liquid chromatography.|
Dr. Jennifer Field’s environmental chemistry lab has just received nearly a hundred bottles of raw sewage. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t smell bad in here. The tightly sealed samples don’t even look that gross.
Jennifer Field: “We’re looking for cocaine and some of its principle metabolites. Methamphetamine is another analyte of great interest.”
Also, heroin, LSD and rave party drugs like Ecstasy. Field and a grad student have calibrated their instruments to do a whole bunch of citywide urine tests, if you will.
Tom Banse: “Has anyone asked if you’re secretly working for the DEA?”
Jennifer Field: “I don’t know that anyone’s asked me that, but we’re not. We are in the academic domain.”
The researchers intend to publish a map of Oregon showing the amount and type of drugs taken per capita place-to-place. Field says the idea for measuring illegal drugs in sewage came to her on a long plane ride. Her husband, a pharmacist, had just been required to hide Sudafed behind the counter to keep it away from meth makers.
Jennifer Field: “There was also a program on TV – I think it was Frontline – that talked about meth being particularly damaging to communities, families and children here in the West. I thought wow, there’s got to be something we could do. So I thought, let’s see if we can see meth in wastewater.”
Field is scaling up a technique pioneered in Europe. She believes her team is making the broadest attempt yet to gather hard data on hard drug use from the sewers.
Jennifer Field: “It’s potentially good for helping people at the state level better understand where should we put our money for drug intervention, prevention and education. Where do we put the limited funds we have to treat this?”
Field’s target was to cover 80 percent of Oregon’s population in this study. She had only one outright refusal to cooperate from a city she won’t name. She says that place was concerned its reputation could be sullied.
|Wastewater operator Guy Allen collects a raw sewage sample in Corvallis.|
Ninety-five communities did send in bottles of raw sewage. That includes Corvallis, where wastewater treatment operator Guy Allen is unafraid of exposing the secrets of his sewage.
Guy Allen: “Most operators are very curious what’s in the wastewater. We know those things are there. It’s all interesting and it’s all helpful because the more we know about what’s in the wastewater, the better we can treat it.”
The wastewater utility director for Seattle-King County agrees, but asked for reassurance in writing that her upcoming sample not be used for criminal investigation. It turns out individual drug users can’t be fingered because of the high volume of flow at the plant intake.
Caleb Banta-Green: “I think it is a very, very big advance in terms of trying to get a good reliable and valid measure of what’s going on in entire communities.”
Caleb Banta-Green is a drug epidemiologist. The University of Washington scientist is excited to get a complete picture of drug use patterns as compared to anecdotal indicators. He foresees very practical applications, for example at a small town school district.
Caleb Banta-Green: “PTA’s can decide, gee is this really an issue in our community? Or, Ecstasy is really not here. Yeah, we heard about one bad case, but that was an aberration. Really we just need to focus on alcohol, for instance.”
So, when do we find out what you and your neighbors are smoking, or snorting, or swallowing collectively?
This is the first time sewage has been screened for illegal drugs on such a broad scale. So the scientists are working the data over very carefully. They’re going to keep us waiting for months.
Caleb Banta-Green is betting that we’re going to find out that drug use is far more prevalent than other surveys have found.
The testing doesn’t end here. The National Institutes of Health has just replenished the researchers’ funding. They’ll next pick 20 treatment plants across Oregon and Washington and take repeat samples over a year.