Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Scientists are using, well, pee and poop to get a more accurate picture of drug use in your city.
Maybe it’s unsurprising that finding data on illegal drug use is very, very difficult. Who’s taking what drugs, and where? It’s not the kind of information that many are willing to divulge, even to researchers, which puts law and public health officials in a tricky situation. If they’re hoping to track the global flow of drugs, they need to know where drugs are being consumed. If they’re hoping to study the effects of a drug on specific populations, they’re going to need to know who exactly is taking it, and when.
Just in the past decade or so, an entirely new field of research has sprung up to answer questions like these. It’s called “sewage epidemiology,” and its starting place is not the street corner or the methadone clinic—it’s the toilet. By sampling wastewater (including raw sewage), scientists have found they can get a real-time picture of a community’s drug use, one that is blessedly anonymous.
While American researchers have done some wastewater epidemiology work, the real action is happening in Europe. In 2014, researchers published a major paper analyzing wastewater from 42 cities across 21 countries, and found, for example, that people like cocaine in Antwerp, methamphetamines in Prague, and cannabis in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Now, in a new comprehensive paper released by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) this month, researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research are floating a sewage epidemiology technique to test for fresh psychoactive substances in areas where they’re most likely to show up. These drugs—your cocaine, your MDMA, your LSD, your hashish, etc.—are particularly difficult for researchers to track because their recipes are constantly being tweaked, sometimes to avoid laws. “There are too many new psychoactive substances arising on the market—only in 2014, we got at least 100 new drugs,” Liesbeth Vandam, a toxicologist with EMCDDA, told Motherboard this week. “We can assume that the user base for each of them is low, which means they are difficult to find in wastewater [because of weaker concentration].” The scientists argue that if they look for these drugs in areas where people are most likely to use them—like the toilets at festivals or in nightclubs—they’ll get a much better picture of what’s really going on.
The analysis of pooled urine wastewater from portable public urinals (pissoirs) achieves this objective in two ways: firstly, pissoirs can be placed in areas in which target populations are expected to congregate or in which the use of new psychoactive substances is expected (e.g. at music festivals) and, secondly, urine from portable toilets is less dilute than urine from municipal wastewater systems because dilution occurs in municipal wastewater as a result of the domestic use of water (showers, washing machines, etc.) and the infiltration of rain water. The concentrations of new psychoactive substance biomarkers in pissoir-derived wastewater are, therefore, expected to be orders of magnitude higher than those in municipal wastewater, which will increase the likelihood of detection.
British researchers took this technique for a test drive in 2012, and wrote up their findings in a paper delightfully called “Taking the Pissoir.” By collecting urine samples from one nightclub over the course of one weekend, they found traces of mephedrone, 3-trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine (an MDMA alternative), 2-aminoindane (MMAI), amphetamine, cocaine, ketamine, and MDMA.
So next time you see someone scooping pee out of a urinal, don’t be alarmed! It could be your friendly neighborhood European epidemiologist, trying to determine a baseline to study the effectiveness of an anti-drug campaign being run at the local school.