Tracking Illegal Drugs through Waste Water Treatment

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There’s a continuing problem when funding resources for drug addiction and treatment. It also comes up in the law enforcement community. How can you tell how big the problem is when those who are participating in it will do their utmost to remain undiscovered? Secrecy is built into the nature of all addictions, but particularly when the addictive substance is illegal. Short of mandatory testing, authorities and medical personnel have no way to directly see the level of drug use in their communities. This brings up the idea of waste water testing.

Illegal drugs, like most other substances humans consume, eventually make it into the waste water treatment flow. Even after ingestion or injection, the metabolites of drugs will be excreted and find their way to a water treatment facility. This wouldn’t matter much, except now we have the technology needed to measure such substances in extremely dilute solutions. That means, even after the substance has passed through a user’s body and been diluted thousands of times in the sewers, scientists can still detect specific drugs. By testing untreated water, they can get a measurement of the amount of illegal substances for whatever community uses that system.

Because this method doesn’t identify specific individuals (but see below), the data would only be useful to make comparisons between communities. If one community shows a certain level of heroin use, for example, an another has twice as much for the same population, resources could be shifted based on this information. Because the measure takes a kind of chemical poll across the entire water using public, it reaches information that would otherwise be concealed and becomes an impartial measure of illicit drug use.

An upcoming paper addresses the ethical considerations, but because the waste water flow is anonymous, ethical issues aren’t a problem. Looming on the horizon however, is another type of testing that would be a problem…

Since sewage is treated the same as trash in the legal system, it is free for police officers to examine without a search warrant. That means they could, conceivably, trap the outflow from a house where drug use is suspected, test it, and then act on the results of the test. Current law doesn’t discriminate between dilute solutions of cocaine or other illegal substances and the useable forms of those drugs. Police could, in effect, tap into a sewer line and arrest someone for any detectable amount of illegal substance found there.

This latter use has an important difference however – the loss of the anonymity that is critical to the ethical tracking mentioned before. Like any new policing technique, sewer line testing would have to pass the test of a courtroom trial.

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