Pee Into This Really Big Cup—Researchers Check Sewage for Drug Residues

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Forget about lying on annual federal drug use surveys. Researchers at the Oregon State University and the University Washington have figured out a better way to track a community's use of illicit recreational drugs–check their sewage for drug residues. The press release describing the work says:

Public health officials may soon be able to flush out more accurate estimates on illegal drug use in communities across the country thanks to screening test described here today at the 234th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. The test doesn't screen people, it seeks out evidence of illicit drug abuse in drug residues and metabolites excreted in urine and flushed toward municipal sewage treatment plants. …

Preliminary tests conducted in 10 U.S. cities show the method can simultaneously quantify methamphetamine and metabolites of cocaine and marijuana and legal drugs such as methadone, oxycodone, and ephedrine, according to Aurea Chiaia, a graduate student who is working to refine the process and described details at the ACS meeting.

"Because our method can provide data in real time, we anticipate it might be used to help law officials undertaking surveillance to make intervention or prevention decisions or to decide where to allocate resources," Chiaia says.

One day those guys digging up your sewer connection might be DEA agents. Whole press release here.

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  1. This sort of drug-dredging has been around for a couple years, at least.

  2. This is why I store all my urine in mason jars.

  3. Just wait till the detectors get small and cheap enough that the can install them on the state owned sections of piping from individual homes.

    Jesus.

    Actually, I shouldn’t be pessimistic. Maybe they’ll notice consumption coming from low-crime areas, and publicize the fact that drug use does not cause violent crime/poverty… And while I’m dreaming, maybe a pony will show up at my door and let my daughter ride it.

  4. And thus began the biggest public health crisis in decades, as individuals now refused to use any type of public sanitary sewer system, and instead opted for grass, trees, asphalt, etc.

    Great.

  5. And while I’m dreaming, maybe a pony will show up at my door and let my daughter ride it.

    May your pony be a blue one, and may you dream a winning lotto ticket my way.

  6. What a great metaphor for the whole drug war. They’ll stop people from getting high, even if they have to submerge themselves in human excrement.

  7. Just as long as the pony is named Wind-Dancer.

    Worst part is, it’s not even illegal for the bacon to do this, it’s considered trash.

    Who wants to start up a private sewage collection company with me? We’ll call it PisSecure!

  8. Uh-oh… Oregon State eh? Hmmm… I don’t suppose they’ve been testing their methods here in Corvallis have they? Of course it’s not that I’m worried or anything, you know, just saying I’m curious…

  9. “Actually, I shouldn’t be pessimistic. Maybe they’ll notice consumption coming from low-crime areas, and publicize the fact that drug use does not cause violent crime/poverty”

    I was thinking along those same lines. What if their gadget finds that the amount of metabolites is so high (pun intended) that the only conclusion could be that a majority – which I doubt, but what if? – of the people in the community use? Would the prudent course of action be to “allocate resources” better or accept the fact that the WoD is impossible to win, that the people have smokin, and that the gov is just throwing big $ into a hole?

    Never mind. I already know what they’ll do regardless of what’s prudent.

  10. How can this possibly work? What about chemicals like bleach that also get poured down the drain, wouldn’t they render waste untestable?
    And what about if a couple of drug users pee a lot more than non drug users in a certain area or vice versa, couldn’t that skew the results?

  11. Who wants to start up a private sewage collection company with me? We’ll call it PisSecure!

    Heh. That’s one possibility. I was thinking this ought to open up a market for someone to develop chemicals that will either neutralize any residue / metabolites or would otherwise flood the sewage with enough other chemicals to effectively blind the sensors with noise. If they could make it come in a nice little toilet tank insert like “1000 Flushes” it would be even better.

    But what to do about those insidious “say no to drugs” urinal cakes that are just bound to end up with one of these sensors? 🙂

  12. Real time waste water monitoring is already cheap and in place. Most municipal waste water companies require testing. I use to run several tests myself, EPA method 625 would pickup all sorts of fun stuff.

  13. And while I’m dreaming, maybe a pony will show up at my door and let my daughter ride it.

    *doorbell rings*

  14. I was thinking along those same lines. What if their gadget finds that the amount of metabolites is so high (pun intended) that the only conclusion could be that a majority – which I doubt, but what if? – of the people in the community use?

    Just a question on chemistry here, but how many legal prescription drugs might look like illegal drugs when checking in the sewer?

  15. Brian Courts,

    I would imagine they would then start mandatory collection of the sweepings at barber shop and beauty salons.

  16. SugarFree:
    Your last comment sent shivers down my neck.

  17. Someone flushing his stash might skew the results a tad.

  18. I think they just aren’t goin’ far enough. And I can’t figure out why they would spend so much money and effort going thru sewer pee-pee.

    What they should do is start
    1. apprehending people off of the streets,
    2. shoving them into vans and drive to lab
    3. tie them down so they can’t move
    4. Shove dicatidors into the women’s vagina and men’s pee hole
    5. Wait until the pee comes out
    6. Then allowing them to go home

  19. I ain’t gonna piss in no sewer.

  20. “””I was thinking along those same lines. What if their gadget finds that the amount of metabolites is so high (pun intended) that the only conclusion could be that a majority – which I doubt, but what if? “””

    Oh they would throw that under National Security. Information like that would be a threat to their war and aide the enemy. I’m half kidding.

    But would they use it as a pretext to search the houses in a “positive” community.

    “””I would imagine they would then start mandatory collection of the sweepings at barber shop and beauty salons.””””

    That’s a good one. They could get a better drug history with DNA to say who’s drug history it was. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that ended up being necessary to get your new secure federal/state ID.

  21. “””Just a question on chemistry here, but how many legal prescription drugs might look like illegal drugs when checking in the sewer?”””

    My guess is that they wouldn’t be concerned with perscription drugs with this method. Just the illegal stuff.

  22. If you want to worry about skewed data, imagine the effect of a dealer flushing a kilo when he sees the SWAT team coming. That has to outshine the drug residue of a whole city.

  23. My guess is that they wouldn’t be concerned with perscription drugs with this method. Just the illegal stuff.

    Like Vicodin. Oh…

  24. Eryk – they’d just use the results to get increased funding. “Our last sewage test showed 224% of the people in this city are on meth! We need more money!”

  25. So…how do they deal with the rather large number of areas still using septic systems?

  26. Sometimes, you can actually see the outline of the unintended consequences coming. Other Matt is right….people will avoid detection by going where it ain’t detected. Like behind a bush, or in a dark alley, or at the back of the corner store.

    I have heard that sanitary plumbing took a giant step back during the Middle Ages compared to the Romans – we’re not going to need to re-learn this lesson, to any degree, are we?

  27. “”What they should do is start
    1. apprehending people off of the streets,
    2. shoving them into vans and drive to lab
    3. tie them down so they can’t move
    4. Shove dicatidors into the women’s vagina and men’s pee hole
    5. Wait until the pee comes out
    6. Then allowing them to go home””

    Umm, maybe you should check out an anatomy book about where urine comes out in a woman.
    😉

  28. please don’t take me that serious b

  29. Jim Anderson | August 21, 2007, 4:19pm | #

    As per Jim’s comment, this has been going on for a while. There were studies of urban waste water turning up coke and weed etc for years. I remember someone in college mentioning that it had been done to provide an estimate of a city’s ‘illicitness’ index. Neither here nor there, but just pointing out this is old news.

  30. Maybe they’ll notice consumption coming from low-crime areas, and publicize the fact that drug use does not cause violent crime/poverty

    Actually, that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. Consider how many millions of dollars flow through the drug black market. Most of it has to come from upper/middle class neighborhoods. There simply isn’t that much available cash in the ghetto.

    They could get a better drug history with DNA to say who’s drug history it was.

    Obviously you’ve missed a couple of episodes of CSI. You have to have the root of the hair for DNA.

  31. I’ve watched drug raids in town where they sent guys down the sewer near the residence they just raided. I figured that were checking to see if they were dumping methamphetamine lab chemicals down the city sewer system either on a regular basis or during the raid itself.

  32. Maybe I am missing something but these “scientists” have sold gullible government officials a pig in a poke. All the presence of a matabolyte in a common sewer says is that someone used a particular drug. It says nothing about how many people used that drug in what amounts and whether that drug was used legally with a perscription. If you find X amount of matabolites in a sample, that could mean that one person got really high or a 100 people got kind of high. If there is say a cancer patient or someone with another chronic illness who is taking mad pain medicine legally under a perscription, you will get the same reading you would if the place were full of herione addicts. This is useful to law enforcement? We would all do well to remember this horseshit the next time someone tries to claim that this or that is true because “science” or “research” says so. Sometimes “scientists” are full of shit and in a really obvious way. Are people really this stupid or do they just think the rest of us are so stupid we will believe anything?

  33. I think the best argument against using drugs is that to do so diminishes your potential to accomplish your goals.

    What goals do the minions who would sample your sewage for a living aspire to? And what proud parent would boast that his/her offspring isn’t on drugs but he spends his livelihood rooting through sewage to find some evidence that somewhere someone is getting high.

  34. Paul,
    Many prescription painkillers will show up as an opiate in a drug test, as will all opiates. This is why if you have take vicodin legally and you get piss tested for work, you have to show them your bottle or a doctor’s note. They don’t know that the postive opiate mark is bc you have back pain or because you smoked a bowl of opium last night. You can check Erowid.org for each drug and what it shows up as in a drug test.

  35. This is why I always pee out the window.

  36. So now, to increase his paranoia, David Crosby doesn’t even have to get into his car and look in his rear-view mirror to see a police car; he can just peer into his commode, and then create new lyrics and a fresh title for his classic tune on CSN&Y’s ‘D?ja Vu’ album: “Almost Cut My Hair” may become “Almost Peed In There.”

  37. Dear Sirs:
    This sort of thing is not necessarily for the purpose of law enforcement. I remember a number of years ago when someone published on caffeine and caffeine metabolites in sewage. They were interested in the potential environmental effects of caffeine on marine life, and in being able to get independent verification of coffee consumption statistics. (Of course, coffee isn’t the only beverage with caffeine, but the researchers already knew that.)

    Self reported drug consumption (and for that matter, dietary patterns) are notoriously unreliable. For public health research purposes, developing some methodology other than a survey, even if there are potential flaws, to measure public consumption, is potentially useful. Even if the popular street drugs (cannabis products, methamphetamines, cocaine, etc.) were legalized tomorrow, it would still be useful to know the consumption patterns of these drugs.

    Whether we would like to pretend this isn’t so or not, these drugs do have an effect on health, as well as potentially being a marker for problems which may cause the drug use. A theory making the circles is that some people take street drugs to “self medicate” psychiatric problems. This is not to say that the so-called “war on drugs” is reasonable. I leave that for Reason regulars to debate amongst themselves.

    Alcohol also has health effects, and researchers are interested in studying the pattern of alcohol use in the United States. Of course, it would not be possible to study alcohol use by monitoring sewage. Too many fermenting things can naturally produce ethanol in the sewage system, and we are talking about a volatile compound here. I bring this up to staunch the paranoia that every drug study must be in support of the “war on drugs.”

    One final note. I think most parents would be proud to have a child who does public health research.

    Sincerely,
    Leland D. Davis

  38. I thought the Yellow Peril passed 20 years ago!

  39. LMAO @ Heraldblog! This has got to be one of the best reads of the week. Thanks, guys. 😀

  40. combind this with the idea that we should really be using nomix toilets.
    http://environment.newscientist.com/article/mg19225831.600

    Or the Urine powered battery

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