WASHINGTON — Researchers have figured out how to give an entire community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a city’s sewer plant.
The test wouldn’t be used to finger any single person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, such as methamphetamines, across the country.
Oregon State University scientists tested 10 unnamed American cities, both large and small, for remnants of drugs, both legal and illegal, from wastewater streams. They were able to show that they could get a good snapshot of what people are taking.
“It’s a community urinalysis,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a University of Washington drug abuse researcher who was part of the Oregon State team. The scientists presented their results Tuesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.
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.
One of the early results of the new study showed big differences in methamphetamine use city to city. One urban area with a gambling industry had meth levels more than five times higher than other cities. Yet methamphetamine levels were virtually nonexistent in some smaller Midwestern locales, said Jennifer Field, the lead researcher and a professor of environmental toxicology at Oregon State.
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.
The ingredient Americans consume and excrete the most was caffeine, Field said.
She plans to start a survey for drugs in the wastewater of at least 40 Oregon communities.
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.”