What is a new, real time way to measure drug usage? If you are trying to determine community drug usage in Any Town, USA, you would probably have to rely on the results of survey responses, overdose reports, and drug-related crime stats, all of which could underreport use. Not to mention that it can take months if not years for results to be analyzed and interpreted. Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 28 million people over the age of 12 consumed illegal drugs in 2016, but a new way to collect data shows the rates may be far greater. A research team at Murray State University in Kentucky is using a faster and cheaper method to determine near real-time data on drug consumption in individual communities.

Drug Usage Revealed In Sewage Epidemiology

To do this, researchers use “sewage epidemiology,” or wastewater analyzation. A research team led by Bikram Subedi, Ph.D., analyzed sewage water in two Kentucky towns about 50 miles apart. The goal of the study was to determine drug use rates, whether drug use increased during holidays or celebrations, and if the two towns would have different results.

Drug Usage Spikes During Festivities

Researchers went to the sewage treatment plants in both towns to collect samples which were then filtered and analyzed with mass spectrometry and high-performance liquid chromatography. The study results showed that townspeople used drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine at significantly higher rates during the 2017 solar eclipse and the Fourth of July. However, what drugs were used and in what quantity differed greatly between the two towns.

Oxy and Meth Use Far Greater Than Thought

When researchers performed calculations based on the results of their tests, they found that levels of methamphetamine consumption were far greater than previously thought as was the percentage of people who consume methamphetamine and amphetamine. In fact, usage was estimated to be as much as four times higher than government estimates. Kentucky has extremely high prescription opiate rates, so a very high consumption of opiates like oxycodone, morphine, Percocet, and hydrocodone was also found.

Wastewater Analyzation Coming to a Town Near You

The sewer water method can also be used to find drug use hotspots within a town by analyzing sewer water before it gets to a treatment plant and can be used to determine a source is a hospital or a troubled neighborhood. The method is reportedly widely used in Europe and researchers say it needs to be used more here. The analytical method used allows scientists to determine the identity and concentration of a particular drug or drugs in a sample.

National Waste Water Testing

The researchers say that they want to expand wastewater testing across the country, but it will require population data to be tracked so particular changes can be accounted for, such as a town receiving a large number of tourists for an event. The researchers presented their findings at the 256th National Meeting Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).


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