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Published: 15 November 2011

Wastewater analysis

Wastewater analysis or sewage epidemiology is a rapidly developing scientific discipline with the potential for monitoring population level trends in illicit drug consumption.

Advances in analytical chemistry have made it possible to identify urinary excretion of illicit drugs and their main metabolites in wastewater at very low concentrations. This is comparable to taking a much diluted urine sample from an entire community (rather than from an individual user). With certain assumptions, it is possible to back-calculate from the amount of the metabolite in the wastewater to an estimate of the amount of a drug consumed in a community.

While early research focused on identifying cocaine and its metabolites in wastewater, recent studies have produced estimates on levels of cannabis, amphetamine, methamphetamine, heroin and methadone. The identification of less commonly used drugs, such as ketamine and new psychoactive substances, looks promising.

This area of work is developing in a multidisciplinary fashion, with important contributions from a number of disciplines, including analytical chemistry, physiology, biochemistry, sewage engineering and conventional drug epidemiology. A 2011 EMCDDA expert meeting on wastewater analysis identified at least 18 research groups operating in 13 European countries working in this area. At the top of the current research agenda is the development of a consensus on sampling methods and tools, as well as the establishment of a code of good practice for the field.

About the EMCDDA

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU's decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Friday, 28 October 2011