When humans use drugs or medications, the breakdown products from many of these substances ultimately end up in the wastewater that passes through treatment plants in cities, towns and other jurisdictions. Previous research conducted in Europe has shown that chemical analysis of wastewater can help public health officials identify trends in substance use within a given population. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a team of researchers from the State University of New York at Albany conducted the first U.S.-based project designed to detect substances of abuse in municipal wastewater.
All of the substances commonly abused by human beings are fairly complex mixtures of various chemicals. When these substances enter the body, a natural elimination process begins and their constituent chemicals start to break down. In the absence of this process, the repeated consumption of even relatively small amounts of a substance could produce a fatal buildup inside the bloodstream or in vital organs. A good example of the general process of breakdown and elimination involves alcohol, one of the two most widely used substances in the U.S. When you drink alcohol, your liver takes the molecules of this substance apart and produces a number of byproducts, including a chemical called acetaldehyde. Gradually, these byproducts make their way from the bloodstream to the kidneys, and then get passed out of the body through urine. The specific rate of breakdown and elimination depends on the particular substance under consideration. The nature of the substance in question also determines the avenue through which any byproducts get eliminated from the body.
The principle behind wastewater analysis for the tracking of substance abuse rests on the fact that scientists now have the tools to identify specific substance breakdown products with a reasonably high degree of accuracy. In turn, analysis of the levels of these breakdown products can help public health officials find out such things as where substance abuse is most likely to occur and which substances have the widest distribution within a given area. In a couple of large-scale, international studies conducted in Europe since 2010, several teams of researchers established the validity of using wastewater analysis as a tool for analyzing trends in substance use and substance abuse. These researchers demonstrated that such an analysis can pinpoint current trends even on a week-to-week basis.
Wastewater Tracking in the U.S.
In the study published in Environmental Science & Technology, the SUNY Albany researchers used wastewater analysis to track the levels of six drugs and eight drug byproducts in the city of Albany each day over a period of one week. Water samples were taken from two treatment plants that processed the waste from a total of approximately 100,000 people. Some of the drugs and byproducts examined were still partially in their original form, while other drugs and byproducts had dissolved completely in the water samples.
When the researchers compared the wastewater samples from the Albany area to samples drawn from a smaller community of roughly 15,000 residents, they found that the Albany samples had much higher levels of a range of legal and illicit/illegal substances that can function as targets of abuse, including MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly), the opioid medication methadone, the stimulant drug cocaine, the stimulant drug/medication methamphetamine and the stimulant drug/medication amphetamine. When they analyzed the levels of specific drugs and byproducts, the researchers found (among other things) that fully 93 percent of the samples drawn from the Albany area contained either cocaine or a cocaine breakdown product called norcocaine.
The study’s authors found that wastewater treatment plants have varying degrees of success when trying to filter drugs and drug byproducts before returning water to active circulation. For example, almost all traces of cocaine are removable, while traces of methamphetamine and methadone are currently difficult or relatively impossible to remove. The authors also found that the wastewater levels of certain legal substances, including caffeine and caffeine byproducts and nicotine and nicotine byproducts, act as predictors of the levels of illicit/illegal substances found in untreated water samples. This is interesting, in part, because the legal substances under consideration can also produce significant health problems in their users. In addition to helping public health officials track trends in substance abuse, the authors believe that wastewater analysis could potentially help local, state and federal officials improve their efforts to enforce existing drug laws.