One Chinese chemist says the wastewater analysis has already helped authorities arrest a drug manufacturer.
Police in several cities in China are examining sewage to help track illegal drug use, according to Scientific American. By analyzing wastewater, Chinese authorities hope to not only zero in on illicit drug use by location, but evaluate how well its anti-drug programs are working.
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) has already been adopted in other countries, including Belgium, Spain and Germany, but China is among the first to employ it for drug enforcement rather than research. (Most countries use WBE to track the spread of bacteria and viruses.)
Li Xiqing, a chemist from Beijing’s Peking University, was quick to point out that the technique has already helped authorities to arrest a drug manufacturer.
He believes many others can follow China’s lead. “The experience and lessons from the application of WBE and its adoption by the Chinese drug police in their daily management will be very relevant for other countries,” Li told Scientific American.
Not everyone is embracing the technique with open arms, however. Critics argue that while the technique undoubtedly yields results, safeguards need to be put in place to ensure the data is used for the right purposes.
WBE’s effectiveness is determined by comparing the results between drug levels found in sewage and police reports. For example, a study of 60 European cities found a “strong correlation” between the amount of cocaine found in one area’s wastewater and police data on drug seizures in that same area. (WBE is somewhat imperfect, the report suggested, since methamphetamine didn’t line up with police data.)
“The science and findings are globally consistent and comparable,” Australian researcher Shane Neilson told Scientific American, affirming that WBE is an increasingly reliable way of estimating drug use in a specific geographical location.
Additionally, WBE provides an “objective” and “unequivocal” method about whether anti-drug initiatives are working, the story said, since it doesn’t lean on the number of arrests or drugs seized.
Regardless, WBE carries a number of thorny concerns around privacy and politics, several experts warned.
“In China, the general population is used to following the directions given by the government, and privacy related issues don’t seem to be a major concern—the situation is totally different in the United States,” said Carsten Prasse, a Johns Hopkins researcher. “WBE represents a powerful new tool to assess drug consumption in our cities, but there is still a lot of work to do before it can be implemented on a larger scale.”
Many American cities may simply not want their wastewater analyzed, a recent STAT News story indicated.
While technology can help “reveal remarkably detailed patterns of drug use” and “transform sewers into public health observatories,” many city officials might be afraid of what it reveals. Given the stigma associated with drug addiction, some may view WBE as a threat to their reputation.
“I think cities may be looking past the stigma,” one researcher insisted. “They already know they have an opioid crisis, so [they’re] trying to find any tool possible to help them deal with that.”