The latest findings from the largest European project in the emerging science of wastewater analysis are presented today by the Europe-wide SCORE group, in association with the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) (1). The project analysed wastewater in 68 cities in 23 European countries to explore the drug-taking behaviours of their inhabitants.
From Stockholm to Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela to Nicosia, the study analysed daily wastewater samples in the catchment areas of wastewater treatment plants over a one-week period in March 2019. Wastewater from approximately 49 million people was analysed for traces of four illicit stimulant drugs: amphetamine, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamine (cannabis and heroin are not included in the study). Compared to previous years, the 2019 study points to an overall rise in the detection of the four drugs studied.
Wastewater-based epidemiology is a scientific discipline with the potential for monitoring close to real-time, population-level trends in illicit drug use (see motion graphic for method) (2). By sampling a known source of wastewater, such as a sewage influent to a wastewater treatment plant, scientists can now estimate the quantity of drugs used in a community by measuring the levels of illicit drugs and their excreted metabolites (3).
The SCORE group has been conducting annual wastewater monitoring campaigns since 2011. The 2019 results are released today in ‘Wastewater analysis and drugs — a European multi-city study’, an updated edition in the EMCDDA Perspectives on Drugs (POD) series. The POD includes an innovative interactive map and a chart-based tool allowing the user to look at geographical and temporal patterns and to zoom in on results per city and per drug.
2019 findings: what’s new?
The 2019 findings offer a valuable snapshot of drug use patterns in the cities involved, revealing marked geographical and temporal variations:
The EMCDDA adopts a multi-indicator approach to drug monitoring on the principle that no single measure can provide a full picture of the drug situation. It views wastewater analysis as a valuable additional tool which can provide timely information on a wide spectrum of substances.
Alexis Goosdeel, EMCDDA Director says: ‘Wastewater analysis has demonstrated its utility over the last decade as an important new drug monitoring tool and a complement to more established monitoring methods. By delivering almost real-time data on drug use patterns, both geographically and over time, this novel approach can offer a valuable snapshot of drug use in key cities in Europe and an insight into emerging changes in behaviour. It is also showing promise in new areas, such as identifying, and estimating the use of, new psychoactive substances and assessing the outcome of interventions targeting drug supply. As a method, wastewater analysis has moved from being an experimental technique to being an important addition in our epidemiological toolkit’.