Wastewater as a source of knowledge about the extent of drug addiction. What does the European report reveal?


Wastewater has been analyzed for years for substances in it that could harm the environment and our health. However, wastewater can also become a valuable source of knowledge about the spread of viruses, drugs taken or drug habits. The latest results of a European project analyzing wastewater from some 54 million people in a record 104 European cities from 21 countries have been published. The presence of illegal substances, including cocaine and ketamine, was investigated. The results were also published in graphical form (maps), which facilitates their interpretation.

European wastewater study

The latest results of a European project related to analyzing wastewater for narcotics have been published on the website of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction(EMCDDA). The SCORE group also collaborated on the implementation. Scientists working in various research areas, including analytical chemistry, physiology and biochemistry, wastewater engineering, epidemiology and statistics, were involved in the project.

The project in question analyzed wastewater to study the population’s drug use behavior. The results provide valuable insight into the scale of stimulant circulation, revealing clear geographic differences between countries and cities. Samples were taken from the city’s treatment plants from March to April 2022. and tested for five illegal substances – cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, MDMA, ketamine and cannabis. The same test method was used at all locations, which enabled quality control and facilitated comparison of results.

Wastewater – what did the study reveal?

Analysis of the wastewater showed some patterns in the temporal distribution of illicit substance use. More than three-quarters of the cities showed higher concentrations of cocaine, ketamine and MDMA residues on weekends, while for the other stimulants this distribution was more even throughout the week.

The results show a steady increase in the amount of cocaine detected (tests for this substance have been conducted since 2016), despite some fluctuations during the pandemic. Methamphetamine was detected primarily in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Germany and Turkey. Of the 60 cities that had data for 2021 and 2022, more than half reported an increase in the amount of this substance in the tested wastewater. Due to the increased availability of ketamine in Europe, it was necessary to include it in the pool of test substances. The highest loads were found in wastewater in cities in Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Spain.

The results of the survey have been published in map form, allowing us to look at quantitative variation and spatial distribution. The study’s conclusions explain these discrepancies by geographic, social and demographic differences. In most countries, increased use of cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA has been detected in large cities compared to smaller ones. No significant differences were noted for amphetamine and cannabis.

Research potential and social value

Early and targeted research that identifies new psychoactive substances is a valuable source of information in the context of public health, prevention of social problems and local or central policy decisions. They are a kind of warning of the problems that will be faced, among others. health care or social welfare. It should also be noted that testing in wastewater for illegal substances can help detect specific points (e.g., city neighborhoods, streets) where synthetic drug production takes place and identify locations with higher demand for illegal drugs.

Alexis Goosdeel, director of EMCDDA: “Wastewater samples can tell revealing stories about community life and can provide early warning of emerging health risks. Today’s findings from a record 104 cities paint a picture of a drug problem that is both widespread and complex, with all six substances detected in almost every location. Today, well-established science and wastewater surveillance provide us with increasing insight into the dynamics of drug use and supply. We were also encouraged by its growing potential for targeting and evaluating local public health responses and policy initiatives.”

Therefore, it is worth remembering that wastewater, even if it is a “stinky” topic in many respects, should be in the circle of our interests, and the results of their analysis can be a valuable source of information.

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