Drug use is on the rise, but a new method for tracking it in real time could help law enforcement better hone their fight.Photo credit: David Brodbeck, Wikimedia CommonsThe new study, a first-of-its-kind in the U.S., was published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology and could help law enforcement identify new drug hot spots and monitor whether anti-drug measures are working.

Kurunthachalam Kannan and Bikram Subedi note that to date, most methods to estimate drug use in the U.S. are based on surveys, crime statistics and drug seizures by law enforcement. But much illegal drug use happens off the radar. To better approximate usage, scientists have been turning to wastewater. Like a lot of other compounds from pharmaceuticals and personal care products to pesticides, illegal drugs and their metabolic byproducts also persist in sewage. In Europe, a number of studies have been done to see how well wastewater treatment plants are removing illicit drugs from sludge before treated water is released into the environment. But until now, no study in the U.S. had looked at this, likely leading to underestimates of abuse. Kannan and Subedi wanted to form a more complete picture of drug use, so they studied levels of illicit drugs at two wastewater treatment plants in Albany, New York.

Surprisingly, the scientists found cocaine in 93 percent of all untreated samples. Levels of byproducts from opioids and hallucinogenic drugs were also detected. They found that the wastewater treatment plants didn’t remove all illicit drugs before releasing water back into the environment – and eventually into drinking water. But, the researchers suggest, tracking drugs in wastewater could help policymakers and law enforcement understand patterns of abuse and better fight it.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.