Saturday, September 08, 2007

Drug tests for whole cities

A recent article in Science News describes a new method to analyze waste water for drugs and drug breakdown products. As analytical chemistry has gotten more advanced, chemists can detect smaller and smaller concentrations of compounds. The new technique can detect quantities of drugs and drug metabolites down to nanogram quantities per liter. Jennifer Field (at OSU) and her graduate student Aurea Chiaia developed this technique and presented the results at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston on August 21st. I have been searching for a paper which describes the work in detail, but it doesn't seem to be available, only abstracts and press releases. I would have loved to see some charts and the actual measured values from the paper.

That Friday, Field spoke on NPR's talk of the nation Science Friday to describe some of the work. They investigated several different compounds, illegal drugs, such as pseudoephedrine, cocaine, rave drugs (like Ecstasy), LSD and heroin. They also looked at some drugs that are not illegal like pseudoephedrine, amphetamine , one of which break down products of methamphetamine use and the other can be used to manufacture methamphetamine illegally.

She was cagey about reporting which community has a bigger drug problem, appropriately suggesting that these are early results and probably because they are working out the accuracy of the findings. Most of the coverage of the paper centers around the use of the technique for drug enforcement officials. Some of the articles about the study reflect this concern.
"Cities in the experiment ranged from 17,000 to 600,000 in population, but Field declined to identify them, saying it could harm her relationship with sewage plant operators."
She also seemed hesitant to list the cities in particular they studied. I was impressed with her stand on privacy concerns when it was suggested that the technique could be used further upstream by law enforcement officials to catch people using illegal drugs. From the OSU press release:
“Waste water analysis is a more powerful indicator at the community level,” Field said. “We are interested in the 'community load' of drugs, so we want to take samples as close to the urinal as possible without violating the privacy of individuals.”
The team also looked at caffeine, which she described as a human urinary biomarker, perhaps it could serve as a control compound to normalize the other concentrations.

One interesting part of the study involved looking at the levels change in drug use for one coop municipality over 28 days to look for time effects. They measured benzoylecgonine, which is a breakdown product of cocaine. They found that cocaine use increased on weekends, indicating that it is used recreationally, while methadone, a prescription opiate, used to treat cocaine abuse remained constant. Methamphetamine, not know for its recreational use, but for its addiction, showed steady use over the time period. One of the papers co-authors, Caleb Banta-Green, is a research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, and is especially concerned about meth abuse, which has been increasing in the Pacific Northwest.

It looks like the group will also present similar findings at the 6th International Conference on Pharmaceuticals and Enocrine Disrupting Chemicals in Water in October.

No comments: