Pubdate: Wed, 22 Aug 2007
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2007 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Drug Test)


Wastewater Can Provide Snapshot Of What People Are Taking, Scientists Say

WASHINGTON -- Researchers have figured out how to give an entire 
community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a 
city's sewer plant. The test wouldn't be used to identify any single 
person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and 
other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, such as 
methamphetamines, across the country. Oregon State University 
scientists tested 10 unnamed American cities for remnants of drugs, 
both legal and illegal, from wastewater streams. They were able to 
show that they could get a good snapshot of what people are taking. 
"It's a community urinalysis," said Caleb Banta-Green, a University 
of Washington drug abuse researcher who was part of the Oregon State 
team. The scientists presented their results Tuesday at a meeting of 
the American Chemical Society in Boston.

Two federal agencies have taken samples from U.S. waterways to see if 
drug-testing a whole city is doable, but they haven't gotten as far 
as the Oregon researchers.

One of the early results of the new study showed big differences in 
methamphetamine use city to city. One urban area with a gambling 
industry had meth levels more than five times higher than other 
cities. Yet methamphetamine levels were virtually nonexistent in some 
smaller Midwestern locales, said Jennifer Field, the lead researcher 
and a professor of environmental toxicology at Oregon State.

The ingredient Americans consume and excrete the most is caffeine, 
Field said. Cities in the experiment ranged from 17,000 to 600,000 in 
population, but Field declined to identify them, saying that could 
harm her relationship with the sewage plant operators.

She plans to start a survey for drugs in the wastewater of at least 
40 Oregon communities.

The science behind the testing is simple. Almost every drug -- legal 
and illicit -- that people take leaves the body. That waste goes into 
toilets and then into wastewater treatment plants.

"Wastewater facilities are wonderful places to understand what humans 
consume and excrete," Field said.

In the study presented Tuesday, one teaspoon of untreated sewage 
water from each of the cities was tested for 15 different drugs. 
Field said researchers can't calculate how many people in a town are 
using drugs. She said that one fairly affluent community scored low 
for illicit drugs except for cocaine. Cocaine and Ecstasy tended to 
peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, she said, while 
methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week.

Field said her study suggests that a key tool currently used by drug 
abuse researchers -- self-reported drug questionnaires -- 
underestimates drug use. "We have so few indicators of current use," 
said Jane Maxwell of the Addiction Research Institute at the 
University of Texas, who wasn't part of the study. "This could be a 
very interesting new indicator." David Murray, chief scientist for 
U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the idea interests 
his agency.

Murray said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is testing 
federal wastewater samples just to see if that's a good method for 
monitoring drug use. But he didn't know how many tests were conducted 
or where. The EPA will "flush out the details" on testing, Benjamin 
Grumbles joked. The EPA assistant administrator said the agency is 
already looking at the problem of potential harm to rivers and lakes 
from legal pharmaceuticals.
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