Testing wastewater could help researchers understand drug consumption patterns


Testing wastewater could prove to be an accurate and inexpensive way to determine drug consumption patterns and changes.

Wastewater tests work similar to urine tests, detecting which drugs are being used in a city or region after users’ bodies metabolize the drug and excrete it.

In Australia and Europe, these tests are already in use, and some are so sensitive they can show drug use changes in real-time.

In the United States, public health agencies and utilities routinely test wastewater for pathogens, pharmaceuticals, and pollutants. Still, only a handful of cities in Oregon and Washington have tested for drug use.

There are no standardized testing methods in the United States, but consulting firm Mathematica estimates it would cost as low as $100 per sample.

Annually, the federal government spends approximately $50 million on household surveys that estimate the prevalence of drug use. These surveys reveal methods of drug use and how frequently people take drugs.

Wastewater testing cannot replace surveys because it cannot determine individuals, households, or neighborhoods. Additionally, toxicology tests are more accurate but are expensive and time-consuming.

Public health officials, law enforcement, and others do not have precise data on drug seizures and overdose deaths because the most recent results are from 2018.