Analyses of wastewater detect illicit drug use in 42 European cities

27 May 2014

Wastewaters of 42 European cities have been analysed on an European-wide scale to establish the illicit drug use of their inhabitants. The results of these wastewater analyses were published in the scientific journal Addiction. The study was led by the Europe SCORE network. Prof. Pim de Voogt of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) is one of the team members who contributed to the study.

42 cities in 21 countries

From London to Nicosia and Stockholm to Lisbon, the study analysed daily wastewater samples in the catchment areas of wastewater treatment plants over a one-week period in April 2012 and in March 2013. In 2012, the study involved 23 cities in 11 countries, while in 2013 it was broadened to 42 cities in 21 countries. Data from a 2011 study (19 cities, 11 countries) were used for comparison. Wastewater from approximately 8 million people was analysed for traces of five illicit drugs: amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

The results of the wastewater analyses provide a valuable snapshot of the drug flow through the cities involved, revealing marked regional variations in drug use patterns. Trace of cocaine, for example, were higher in western and some southern cities but lower in northern and eastern cities. Use of amphetamine, while relatively evenly distributed, showed the highest levels in the north and northwest of Europe. Methamphetamine use, generally low and traditionally concentrated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, now appears to be present in eastern Germany and northern Europe. Inhabitants of Dutch cities also use a substantial amount of Cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy, while cannabis consumption places The Netherlands in Europe’s top 5.

When weekly patterns of drug use were examined, cocaine and ecstasy levels rose sharply at weekends in most cities, while methamphetamine and cannabis use appeared to be more evenly distributed throughout the week.

Science of Sewage

Wastewater analysis is a rapidly developing and novel scientific discipline with the potential for monitoring near-real-time population-level trends in illicit drug use. By sampling a known source of wastewater, such as sewage entering wastewater treatment plants, scientists can now estimate the quantity of drugs used in a community by measuring the levels of illicit drugs and their metabolites excreted in urine.

Rapid monitoring of illicit drug use

The purpose of the SCORE study was to assess geographical differences and temporal changes in illicit drug use in metropolitan settings across the region. It is the first, and most extensive, WWA application to date, covering multiple countries, over consecutive years (2011–2013) and according to a fixed protocol. Its conclusions are taken up in the European Drug Report 2014, launched by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) today, as well as in an online interactive analysis by the agency dedicated to the issue (Perspectives on drugs).

Wastewater analysis provides the possibility to collect and report measurements more quickly and regularly than is the current norm for national surveys,’ concludes the report. If used more routinely as a complement to other European drug surveillance methods, it has the clear potential to shed extra light on drug use trends in Europe, including the use of new psychoactive substances.

Publication details:

Ort, C. et al. (2014). Spatial differences and temporal changes in illicit drug use in Europe quantified by wastewater analysis. In: Addiction, doi:10.1111/add.12570

KWR Watercycle Research Institute

Published by  IBED