Dirty Drug Secrets in Europe’s Sewage
Tabloid journalists have long known that you can discover dirty secrets by going through people’s garbage. Now, researchers have done something similar in the name of science, albeit on a grander—and smellier—scale. They have analyzed the sewage of 19 European cities to find out how much of certain illicit drugs people in those cities consume.
“The technique needs further work and validation, but this paper shows that it is a feasible approach for estimating drug use on a large scale,” says Fritz Sörgel, head of the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in Nuremberg, Germany, who was not involved in the work.
To put figures on illicit drug use, researchers routinely use surveys, supplemented by data from police and customs. But they have been pushing for more accurate and objective methods to estimate the amounts consumed. One possibility is to sample the sewage of a city and look for chemical traces of the drugs themselves or metabolites created when a drug passes through the human body. “The surveys tell you what people take, but not how much, not how big the market is,” says Kevin Thomas, a toxicologist at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in Oslo and one of the authors of the new paper. “Sewage tells you that.”
During one week in March 2011, Thomas and colleagues collected daily samples representing 24 hours of sewage flow from 21 sewage treatment plants in 19 cities across Europe—from Antwerp to Zagreb. The samples were analyzed for traces of five different drugs by local labs according to a fixed protocol.