The Future

America can lie about its drug problem, but its sewage can’t

Sewage analysis is a common method of assessing human behavior in Europe, but has yet to take off in the U.S.

The Future

It all comes out in the end

The Future

America can lie about its drug problem, but its sewage can’t

Sewage analysis is a common method of assessing human behavior in Europe, but has yet to take off in the U.S.

People in the United States might actually be taking more drugs than they are willing to admit, especially on public holidays, according to a new study of sewage presented today at an American Chemical Society meeting.

While data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that more than 28 million people aged 12 or older in the United States used an illicit drug in 2016 (including 12 million who misused opioids), these numbers are likely an underestimation, said Bikram Subedi, a professor in chemistry at Murray State University in Kentucky, and one of the lead researchers.

Using a technique called "sewage epidemiology,” Dr. Subedi and his colleagues collected near-real-time data on drug use by testing wastewater in various areas of Kentucky.  "The conventional approach to assess community drug usage in the U.S. takes months or years," Dr. Subedi said, adding at researchers often have had to rely on drug-related crime statistics, overdose reports and survey data, which is not always accurate. Similar studies with trash, for example, have shown that people drink more alcohol than they may admit to when surveyed.

To understand how many drugs people were taking — especially during celebrations like the Fourth of July — the researchers collected and analyzed samples from sewage treatment plants across Kentucky. The results showed that the use of drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and THC (the main active ingredient in marijuana) was significantly higher during those festive events. Opiates including hydrocodone, oxycodone, Percocet and morphine were also found in the samples.

Sewage epidemiology is commonly used in Europe, but Dr. Subedi said it had not taken off to the same extent in the United States. He and his team are hoping to expand their study by moving upstream to collect sewage samples from sites where they suspect drug use might be higher, and eventually, test more sewage across the country.

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