For the first time, patterns of illegal drug use across a state have been mapped using a method of sampling municipal wastewater before it is treated.
Applying analytical methods developed at Oregon State University, researchers from OSU, the University of Washington, and McGill University collected single-day samples from 96 municipalities across Oregon, representing 65 percent of the state’s population.
They tested the samples for evidence of methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA, commonly called ecstasy.
Municipal water treatment facilities across Oregon volunteered for the study to help further the development of this methodology as a proactive tool for health officials.
Their findings provide a snapshot of drug excretion that can be used to better understand patterns of drug use in multiple municipalities over time.
The study, published this week in the journal “Addiction,” reports a demonstration of this method conducted by UW drug epidemiologist Caleb Banta-Green, OSU chemist Jennifer Field, OSU toxicologist Daniel Sudakin, McGill spatial epidemiologist Luc de Montigny and others.
“This work is the first to demonstrate the use of wastewater samples for spatial analyses, a relatively simple and cost-effective approach to measuring community drug use,” said lead author Banta-Green.
“Current measures of the true prevalence of drug use are severely limited both by cost and methodological issues,” he said. “We believe these data have great utility as a population measure of drug use and provide further evidence of the validity of this methodology.”
“Municipalities across the state generously volunteered to help us test our methods by collecting samples more or less simultaneously, providing us with 24-hour composite influent samples from one day – March 4, 2008,” said Field, who led the laboratory analyses of the samples.
Lab tests of the samples showed that the index loads of a cocaine metabolite were significantly higher in urban areas and below the level of detection in some rural areas.
Methamphetamine was present in all municipalities, rural and urban.
Ecstacy was at quantifiable levels in less than half of the communities, with a significant trend toward higher index loads in more urban areas.
The researchers said their study validates wastewater drug testing methodology that could serve as a tool for public health officials to identify patterns of drug abuse across multiple municipalities over time.
“We believe this methodology can dramatically improve measurement of the true level and distribution of a range of illicit drugs,” said Banta-Green. “By measuring a community’s drug index load, public health officials will have information applicable to a much larger proportion of the total population than existing measures can provide.”
The research team recognized that the data used for this study are inadequate as a complete measure of drug excretion for a community or entire state. The team looked at a single day, mid-week sample, for instance. Results might be altered depending on the day or time of year the sample was gathered.
Currently, Field and Banta-Green are working on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine the best method for collecting data in order to get a reliable annual estimate of drug excretion for a community. ENS