Technology deployed during the pandemic to test the country’s sewage for Covid-19 is now being used to detect and analyze illegal drug use in Dublin at the request of the Health Service Executive (HSE).
UCD scientists began testing sewage for illegal narcotics about 18 months ago to determine the extent of their use in the population and to detect the presence of new designer drugs.
The first results were published earlier this year in a study comparing crack use in 13 EU cities. Wastewater analysis showed that the prevalence of crack use in Dublin is broadly in line with most of the other cities examined, but significantly lower than Amsterdam and Antwerp.
UCD began testing sewage for the prevalence of Sars-CoV-2 in June 2020 at the request of the HSE. “Then they contacted me and said, ‘Can you look for medicine too? “, said Wim Meijer, professor of microbiology at UCD.
“When you go to the bathroom, you either pee or poo or both. [these substances]”, Professor Meijer said. “It goes into the sewage system, eventually ends up in a sewage treatment system where everything is collected. You can then take that effluent and analyze it for compounds.
Scientists use a process called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to test the waste for compounds that indicate the presence of drugs, Prof Meijer said. His lab can detect compounds related to heroin, cocaine, cannabis, ketamine, methamphetamines and others.
Wastewater drug testing is already available in many other EU countries. It is considered a much better barometer of drug trends than surveys, where people may be reluctant to tell the truth about their drug use.
“It allows you to see what’s happening in a population or if there are new drugs coming in,” the professor said. It can even be used to determine which days of the week people are most likely to use drugs, he said.
The system can also be used to test pharmaceutical drug levels in wastewater. Unlike illegal narcotics, some drugs containing biologically active compounds can cause environmental problems if present in sufficient quantities.
It can also be used to determine which drugs are popular in which regions. “For example, I come from the Netherlands and it was found that ketamine was much more popular in rural areas than in big cities. So you needed a different kind of approach,” Professor Meijer said.
“It can be deployed at different scales, in our case we are looking at an entire city. But you could use it to look at something like a prison,” Professor Meijer said.
“But there is no chance that it will be used to determine drug use at the household or individual level,” he said.
“We are testing the Ringsend treatment plant in Dublin, which serves 1.9 million people in the greater Dublin area. We absolutely cannot say, for example, “John Smith uses cocaine again”.