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Extracting Drug Statistics from Sewage

By: Gerri L. Elder

Although it is not a task you’d expect anyone to find enjoyable, environmental scientists have devised a way to analyze raw sewage to determine the amount of illegal drug use that is going on in cities. Tests have already been run at municipal sewage plants here and abroad and have detected drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana.

Until now there has really been no way to determine how widespread the use of illegal drugs is or how large the problem actually may be in certain locations. Law enforcement officials have just had to guess, estimate and play it by ear by using drug arrest statistics and surveys as a guide.

The Los Angeles Times reported that by measuring raw sewage for street drugs, law enforcement officials can be provided fairly accurate and precise information about drug use in particular communities.

Environmental chemist Jennifer Field has tested raw sewage in many cities in the United States. She says that every sample she has tested was positive for some type of street drug. In different locations, different drugs are detected. In Las Vegas, levels of methamphetamine levels were higher than in Omaha and Oklahoma City. In Los Angeles County, more cocaine was found in the sewage than in several major European cities. In London, there appears to be more heroin users than there are in cities in Italy and Switzerland.

The sewage drug testing was first proposed by Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Exposure Research Laboratory, in 2001. Daughton’s primary interest in the testing was environmental, but he quickly realized that the data collected had potential to help law enforcement officials and sociologists as well. Although the drug testing is not yet routinely done at sewage plants in the United States, the EPA plans to add illicit drugs to the array of substances that could be monitored daily.

Although the testing at waste treatment plants is anonymous for now and only give a snapshot of drug use in communities, some cities and towns don’t want the testing done. For example, San Diego refused to have their sewage tested to determine the levels of illegal drug use because of the stigma attached to drug use statistics.

The raw sewage that is tested comes from thousands or sometimes millions of people. The current drug testing does not track illegal drug usage for any one location or individual. However, privacy issues have been raised because the testing could be narrowed down to a community, a street or even a single household. It could be argued that this type of narrow testing could constitute an illegal search and seizure and violate basic criminal defense rights.

So, like it or not, you may have already been screened for illegal drug usage. There won’t be cops knocking on the door or any arrest warrants associated with the testing, but it will give law enforcement a better idea of where the problem areas are so that they may concentrate efforts in those areas.


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