Testing wastewater to detect illicit drugs: state of the art, potential and research needs


Chemical analysis of urban wastewater is a potent tool to monitor patterns and trends of illicit drug use.


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Illicit drug use is a global phenomenon involving millions of individuals, which results in serious health and social costs. The chemical analysis of urban wastewater for the excretion products of illicit drugs is a potent approach for monitoring patterns and trends of illicit drug use in a community. The first international and multidisciplinary conference on this topic was recently organized to present the epidemiological knowledge of patterns in drug use and the information obtained from wastewater analysis. This paper gives an overview of the main issues that emerged during the conference, focusing on the identified research gaps and requirements and on the future challenges and opportunities from bringing together wastewater analysis and drug epidemiology. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) uses an established multi-indicator system to monitor illicit drug use and to identify the emergence of new psychoactive substances. The methodological challenges of monitoring a hidden and stigmatized behavior like drug use include the limitations of self-report data and reporting delays. An increasing evidence base suggests that wastewater analysis can address some of these problems. Specifically this technique can: monitor temporal and spatial trends in drug use at different scales, provide updated estimates of drug use, and identify changing habits and the use of new substances. A best practice protocol developed by a Europe-wide network of experts is available to produce homogeneous and comparable data at different sites. The systematic evaluation of uncertainties related to wastewater analysis has highlighted which areas require careful control and those that need further investigation to generally improve the approach. Wastewater analysis has considerable potential to complement existing approaches for monitoring drug use due to its ability to produce objective, real-time estimates of drug use and to give timely information of any change in the patterns of use.