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The putrid science of drugs

Scientist in the labSometimes, it is necessary to go where no man has, or is willing to go in the pursuit of scientific endeavour. In a novel, and quite stomach-churning research project, researchers in Europe have recently carried out an analysis of sewage in 19 European cities to determine and compare the trends in consumption of selected illicit drugs in these cities. According to Fritz Sörgel, who heads the Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research Institute, which is based in Nuremberg, Germany, validation and further work is needed on the technique, but he stated that the approach is feasible in estimating the use of drugs when it comes to such a large scope of analysis. Mr. Sörgel was, however, not one of the scientists who took part in the study.

Traditional methods used to quantify illicit use of drugs normally include the use of surveys that are supplemented by police and customs data. But scientists have had a need for objective and more accurate means of establishing the amount of drugs consumed by users. Examining a city’s sewage system for any trace of the metabolites created by the human body as the drugs pass through it, or even the drugs themselves is one of the possibilities being explored. From the Water Research Institute in the city of Oslo, Norway, Kevin Thomas, who is a toxicologist opines that the surveys can distinguish what users take, but not the quantities, nor how large the market for drugs is. However, sewage analysis can.” He is also among the authors who drafted the new paper.

Thomas and his fellow scientists collected and analysed sewage samples on a daily basis for a week in the month of March 2011. The samples were collected from a total of 21 raw sewage treatment facilities in 19 European cities – from Antwerp to Zaghreb, and represented 24 hours of flow of the refuse. The analysis of the samples was carried out by local labs, looking for traces of 5 different drugs.

Tests for use of cannabis appeared to give consistent results throughout Europe, in spite of not all cities being tested. However, there were remarkable variations in the results concerning other drugs. Belgium and many parts of Western Europe had the dubious distinction of having the highest use of cocaine per capita compared to the North and East. Antwerp, Belgium also exhibited high figures in testing for Ecstasy, along with London and several Dutch cities. Weekends tested highest in concentrations of both drugs. Scandinavian cities and, in particular, the Czech city of Budweis had high levels of methamphetamines per capita. According to Thomas, the astounding results really are a snapshot showing how drugs flow through the sampled European cities in March 2011.”

Thomas, however, has a word of caution; Some of the higher levels encountered may have been the result of drug production as opposed to consumption. To cite an example, despite showing a high level of amphetamines in their sewage, previous surveys of the city of Antwerp in Belgium and several Dutch cities had suggested that use of these specific drugs was actually lower than most of Europe by up to three times. These substances may actually have been released into the sewers by the many drug labs that dot these areas. Furthermore, a bust on a drug ring that coincided with the tests may be responsible for a spike in ecstasy levels in the Dutch city of Utrecht.

According to the researchers’ estimates, around three hundred and fifty five kilos of cocaine were consumed by users in the European continent daily in the week that the study, the results of which were published in the journal, Science of the Total Environment was undertaken. A pharmacologist, Sörgel, cautions that due to the mysteries of how drugs are metabolized in the body, the numbers cannot be confirmed with any certainty. Thomas, however, stated that the number is merely an estimate, since they extrapolated the data from individual cities to countries.

In the meantime, Thomas and his colleagues are carrying out a similar study that will target more locations worldwide and will include data for at least one city in the United States in its findings. Thomas is working towards having the data ready by May 2013, whereby it will be presented at a conference to be held in Austria, and the test samples from the selected cities has already been collected for analysis. This follow-up study will aim to provide head-to-head data regarding what is contained in the sewers of the U.S. and Europe.