Sleuthing With Sewer Water

Oct. 12, 2016

It seems like a novel way to crack a case—a sewer-system search for chemical residues—but law enforcement officials are now using wastewater analysis to help them understand drug use and identify drug-dealing organizations.

A new study published this month in Forensic Science International, explains recent interest in wastewater-based epidemiology. It seems improvements to sensing techniques and analysis have made the contents of sewers and waste pipes a powerful source of data.

“Drugs broken down in the body leave telltale traces of metabolites, some of which can be found, quantified, and back-calculated to work out how much of the original substance was present,” the report explains.

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During the study, researchers used wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor illicit drug use in two cities in Switzerland. They analyzed wastewater and cross-referenced the chemical findings with intelligence provided by law enforcement officials.

The paper reveals important data on the cities’ cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use. It was able to calculate heroin use in Lausanne by measuring morphine in the sewers and subtracting what was prescribed medically. Between October 2013 and December 2014, scientists deduced that the average daily consumption of pure heroin in the city was 13 grams.

Furthermore, the study demonstrates that drug-use data can be valuable and can be used to guide strategic and operational law enforcement decisions. During the research period, police arrested two dealers. Analysis of phone records and interviews suggested that these dealers sold about 6 grams a day between them—about half the total market. This information supported the theory that heroin is commonly supplied by a small number of local dealers who can be effectively targeted.

It seems that when combined with police intelligence, wastewater analysis could help decipher the structure of drug markets, as well as trafficking networks.

What are your thoughts on assessing illicit drug use through wastewater analysis?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.