Drug Testing an Entire Community

You won't identity individual users, but you can test for the prevalence of drug use in a community by testing the sewage water.

Presumably, if you push the sample high enough into the pipe, you can test groups of houses or even individual houses.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Here's information on drug numbers in the Rhine. They estimated that, for a population of 38,5 million feeding wastewater into the Rhine down to Düsseldorf, cocaine use amounts to 11 metric tonnes per year. Street value: 1.64 billion Euros.

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 12:35 PM • 42 Comments

Comments

John ThurstonAugust 24, 2007 1:12 PM

This opens a new form of blackmail:
"Be nice to me or I'll pee in your toilet."

derfAugust 24, 2007 1:21 PM

So now instead of palming dope and pretending to retrieve it from the back of your car at a traffic stop, the "unlikely heroes" of the New Orleans PD will just drop some down your drain or inject it upstream?

dragonfrogAugust 24, 2007 1:41 PM

One interesting issue here, quite aside from the drug-war paranoia that will get this thing funded - some of the drugs that are really dangerous in the levels found in sewage, are hormone mimics particularly birth-control pills.

The quantity of synthetic estrogen in some major waterways is actually significant enough to affect both wildlife and humans drinking the treated water downstream. This research could actually help to target treatment at the source of the estrogen, rather than at the water treatment plants.

chsAugust 24, 2007 1:55 PM

From a purely scientific research point of view, I think it's awesome.

Then again, it might just confirm what we already know: Speed and crack cocaine are used in the ghetto, heroine, ecstacy and cocaine are used in the "nice" areas. Etc...

It would be neat to see a map of the US showing what drugs are used where, and how frequently.

Like I said, scientifically this is really cool, but in the end it will just be used to justify the expensive drug war.

ice weaselAugust 24, 2007 2:21 PM

Who wants to bet they will never tap the outflow pipes from a handful of large government buildings in DC.

It's interesting from a scientific perspective, politically, it could be grossly misused. For instance, could the drug czar or lord high commissioner whatever they are called test the water from a community and then threaten to cut off federal aid until the amount of restricted substances was reduced?


AnonymousAugust 24, 2007 2:30 PM

This certainly raises interesting questions again. Do you need a warrant to test someone's sewage, or can the police just do this whenever they feel like it?

I suppose it's a question that's quite similar to whether you can use drug-trained dogs to find drugs carried by people without probable cause, simply by targetting them and talking to them, allowing the dog to get close enough to do his job.

derfAugust 24, 2007 3:07 PM

Would it be legal for investigative reporters (if there is such thing anymore) to use this on citizens' homes, government officials' homes, and/or government buildings?

Is sewage considered "public"? How far into the system do you have to get before it's "private"? Neighborhood? Home? Toilet?

Is just finding drugs being used in a home considered probable cause or do you need a one to one match between toilet and user?

Can just anyone inject robotic swimmers into the system or is there some permit/warrant required?

Would just GPS coordinates be enough to drive a search warrant if drugs were found or would a sewage map be needed to verify the location of the robot?

questions, questions, questions

pdklAugust 24, 2007 3:08 PM

While sewage is /probably/ similar to garbage in terms of warrants (that is, by getting rid of it you made it public), the one I really want to know is what it would take to establish a claim of Probable Cause from this.

Can they get it to the street level granularity and search a block of houses, or other insanity? Can we get a warrant by just searching the sewage near a particular house? (I'm reminded of the "money testing positive for cocaine" mess)

Kristopher BrowneAugust 24, 2007 3:23 PM

I have to wonder about how it takes into account some drug's behaviors... Opioids metabolize very quickly, and leave no traceable byproducts, so you might not see how that midwestern city that has light meth use might have skyrocketing heroin abuse or problems with prescription oxycodone/hydrocodone abuse.

The best case scenario for a study like this is to finally shed light on the preponderance of real drug use in the US and maybe bring some reason to policy surrounding it.

SumDumGuyAugust 24, 2007 3:29 PM

If we step back from the "drugs are baaaad, mkay?" perspective here, I think this is a very interesting data-point.

Drug usage increases on weekends.

If these drugs are so destructively addictive, then shouldn't usage be relatively constant throughout the week? Isn't the ability to decide whether or not to take a drug defacto proof that addiction is not a significant issue?

Seems to me that this report is straightforward proof that even large-scale recreational use does not necessarily lead to addiction.

RoxanneAugust 24, 2007 4:00 PM

I'm waiting for the search warrant that includes sampling the septic tank. I know that they have searched such tanks in the past, but not with this in mind. No, I don't want this job!! :-)

AnonymousAugust 24, 2007 4:50 PM

@SumDumGuy

Could just be that people maintain the addiction ( to avoid withdrawal symptoms) during the week and amp up the usage on the weekends for kicks.

SumDumGuyAugust 24, 2007 5:47 PM

Which is a model that suggests that people do not always build up a tolerance to increased doses, requiring ever larger doses to satisfy the addiction. So, pretty much my original premise stated in a different form.

sooth_sayerAugust 24, 2007 7:38 PM

One Word .. poopscoop


But what does it have to with security .. after I am done with it, they can have it all.

beowulfAugust 24, 2007 9:31 PM

The Guardian had a story back in April about the Italian government testing the sewage water in Florence and finding a large amount of cocaine in it. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story/0,,2022018,00.html)

Yet more taxpayers money down the drain in this insane undertaking, no matter whose government it is.

averrosAugust 25, 2007 2:13 AM

Oh... the drug warriors will get really smelly jobs, the drug dealers and users won't care much, and the rest of us will get fences and walls smelling of urine.

If you want to see insanity, watch a government in action.

AntonAugust 25, 2007 7:19 AM

I don't remember where I read this and I do not have a reference, but I believe over a ton of drugs flow down the rhine every year.

DanAugust 25, 2007 10:34 AM

I can see whats next: All major private health insurance providers will be monitoring your sewage stream, just in case they need an excuse to refuse to pay your medical bills.

Peter E RetepAugust 25, 2007 12:00 PM

Let's see: We can monitor all the effluent in the collection tree, node by node, times noted. In the workplace, we can also badge track the movement of each employee. Is deduction the equivalent of a search? If it produces information, will that be sufficent to produce a warrant? Will Homeland Security take on new dimensions of meaning? Can it become illegal to NOT use one's head?

antibozoAugust 25, 2007 3:46 PM

I've heard that police detect indoor marijuana growers by aerial infrared imaging of the roofs of houses. If that's true, I'm not sure whether that, by itself, would be adequate for a warrant, though. But even if it weren't, it would tell them whom to scrutinize, whose trash to inspect, etc.

If they're doing urinalysis-style testing, they're actually testing for metabolites. Given all the crazy sh*t, figuratively speaking, people pour down the drain, it'd be very tricky to do this accurately. When testing urine, there are a lot of chemicals that would cause false signatures but which one needn't worry about discriminating, because they simply couldn't occur as metabolites in the urine of a living person. Not so with wastewater.

antibozoAugust 25, 2007 3:53 PM

SumDumGuy> If these drugs are so destructively addictive, then shouldn't usage be relatively constant throughout the week?

Not everyone who uses drugs is addicted to them; those who aren't addicted are using them recreationally and can account for a weekend peak all by themselves.

SumDumGuy> Isn't the ability to decide whether or not to take a drug defacto proof that addiction is not a significant issue?

No, it doesn't prove that at all.

Addiction is a very complicated thing, and for a given drug the compulsion to use is not a constant. It's dependent on things like stress, social support systems, drug availability, funding (a lot of people get paid on Fridays), half-life, time to onset of withdrawal symptoms, etc.

DigitalCommandoAugust 26, 2007 2:24 PM

We could save the cops a big hassle if we just defecated in a ziplock baggy and mailed it directly to the police station, now they won't have to deal with all those messy pipes. Civilian cooperation at it's finest!

'PostleAugust 26, 2007 4:40 PM

@ Peter E Retep:
"Can it become illegal to NOT use one's head?"

Considering most of what flows out of Washington DC, I'm not sure anyone there's been using their head (either meaning) for at least the last half-dozen years ... wouldn't that be hypocritical?
Oh. Wait ... pilot project ...

gpsheadAugust 26, 2007 5:25 PM

Neal Stephenson wrote about this in his 1988 "eco-thriller" novel Zodiac (recently reprinted in paperback, its a good book).

bobAugust 27, 2007 6:45 AM

Ive often wondered if they couldnt make a small robot that would fit in a 4" pipe and travel upstream to a specific house and test the discharge for specific substances. I suspect the complicated part would be proving in court that the device actually sampled the right house.

bobAugust 27, 2007 6:55 AM

Maybe after over 100 years of fighting the "war on drugs" (by one name or another) and losing (more drug users in the US today than POPULATION of the US when cocaine was outlawed) we could snap our fingers, smack our heads and say "Wait a minute - free country! We should let people kill themselves if thats what they want." and then save an annual $345,000,000,000 (at the federal level, probably an equal amount spent by states) and shut down a crapload of prisons while making drugs safer (and taxable).

Jay74August 27, 2007 8:42 AM

While we can joke that this is a crappy job (pun intended), perhaps this would be a good way to test schools for drug use?

AnonymousAugust 27, 2007 11:08 AM

I would like my tax dollars spent on something else, please. A pay raise for teachers or school bus drivers, perhaps.

SparafucileAugust 27, 2007 11:08 AM

So much Prozac has been prescribed that it is now able to be detected in the drinking water. Soon we won't care about this, or any other problems. End of anxiety!

AnonymousAugust 27, 2007 12:42 PM

@antibozo

"Addiction is a very complicated thing, and for a given drug the compulsion to use is not a constant. It's dependent on things like stress, social support systems, drug availability, funding (a lot of people get paid on Fridays), half-life, time to onset of withdrawal symptoms, etc."

While I get your point, at the same time, Occam's razor would suggest that their finding supports the obvious conclusion - "party drugs" like MDMA aren't generally consumed by addicts, but by people at parties, which happen overwhelmingly at weekends.

kashmarekAugust 27, 2007 2:01 PM

Ah, back to diapers & pee bags.

Or, send the drug robot up the sewer to plant to plant them, and a second robot to test for the drugs.

All we have to do is monitor congressional and other government sewer drains.

antibozoAugust 27, 2007 3:01 PM

Anonymous> While I get your point, at the same time, Occam's razor would suggest that their finding supports the obvious conclusion - "party drugs" like MDMA aren't generally consumed by addicts, but by people at parties, which happen overwhelmingly at weekends.

Occam's razor wouldn't "suggest" anything, but if we were to apply it for some reason in a case where we have so little information as to make it irrelevant, the "obvious" conclusion, based entirely on behavioral speculation, is that addicts buy their drugs on the weekends after they get paid and don't manage their supply very well.

In any case, I don't understand why you single out MDMA, which is, as you say, a "party drug". SumDumGuy's comment began, "If these drugs are so destructively addictive," which implies he's referring to the drugs that are reputed to have strong addictive qualities, such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, valium, oxycodone, etc.

And, as bob pointed out succinctly, the addicts with jobs are peeing elsewhere during the week anyway.

ShadAugust 27, 2007 3:36 PM

There is already an off-the-shelf countermeasure: an incinerating toilet. http://www.incinolet.com/aboutus_2.htm

The eventual organic residues in the ash can be either further destroyed by calcinating the ash at higher temperature, or adding suitable decomposition catalysts.

Other possibilities include decomposition of the metabolites in liquid phase using e.g. a suitable oxidizer - hypochlorite bleach, or hydrogen peroxide.

AnonymousAugust 28, 2007 1:01 PM

@antibozo

"In any case, I don't understand why you single out MDMA, which is, as you say, a "party drug". SumDumGuy's comment began, "If these drugs are so destructively addictive," which implies he's referring to the drugs that are reputed to have strong addictive qualities, such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, valium, oxycodone, etc.

And, as bob pointed out succinctly, the addicts with jobs are peeing elsewhere during the week anyway."

I single out MDMA because the article does:

"Cocaine and ecstasy tended to peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, she said, while methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week."

My take on that, based on a little speculation and some more-or-less common knowledge on the nature of the drugs in question

- prescription drug use doesn't fluctuate, because you don't commonly get prescriptions that say "take two an hour on weekends, and one a day during the week"
- ecstacy use peaks on weekends because it's not very addictive, if at all, so most use of MDMA is by recreational users.
- Most methamphetamine use is by addicts who need to maintain a steady intake all week
- Most cocaine use (at least in this community) is by recreational users. This shows an interesting data point, as my impression has been is that crack is typically an addict's drug, while powder coke is more typically a recreational drug. That suggests they're looking at a community where crack is not very prevalent.

As for bob's comment about gainfully employed addicts peeing elsewhere during the week - that would only matter if their workplace feeds into a different sewer system than their home. If you're testing a whole community, other than a "bedroom" community, then you'd be capturing the same people's drug output (and inferred intake) every day.

antibozoSeptember 3, 2007 4:15 PM

Anonymous> I single out MDMA because the article does

Yes, but as I already pointed out, SumDumGuy did not; he specifically referred to drugs that are supposed to be "so destructively addictive", which obviously does not include MDMA.

Anonymous> If you're testing a whole community, other than a "bedroom" community, then you'd be capturing the same people's drug output (and inferred intake) every day.

The article is unspecific as to exactly where in the sewage system sampling is occurring.

In any case, I'm very skeptical of the results. Testing raw sewage, rather than pure urine, for drug metabolites is not a well-developed science and I very much doubt these tests are remotely accurate after you factor in the bleach, detergents, degreasers, pesticides, food products, drain cleaners, photoprocessing chemistry, electroplating chemistry, used motor oil, and innumerable other agents that are mixed into the sewage stream along with a little human urine. It took quite a while for urinalysis itself to become reasonably accurate, and there are still problems with false positives. Uncorroborated variation in measured metabolite levels over 10 cities is as readily explained by differences in industry as by actual drug use, and variation over the week is explained by drops in industrial output on the weekends. Note that the only other evidence presented, questionnaires, actually refutes the testing results, leading one researcher to conclude that the questionnaires must "underestimate" the drug usage. Note also that none of the people quoted is identified as a chemist. My gut feeling from reading the article is that this research belongs in the toilet where it began.

AnonymousMarch 2, 2008 12:46 PM

I think it would be interesting if they tested the sewage comeing from local police stations to see how many cops are useing

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