Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Wastewater analysis – New data multi-city study on drug wastewater analysis released

4 June 2015

New findings of the largest European study on illicit drugs in wastewater analysis will be published today by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon as part of the EMCDDA European Drug Report (EDR) 2015. Use in The Netherlands in 2014 was found to be similar to preceding years and illegal discharges are on the increase.

The EMCDDA European Drug Report (EDR) 2015 presents the latest data on cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and cannabis levels obtained in wastewater of some 50 European, Canadian and Australian cities measured by the European SCORE network. Analysis of illicit drugs in wastewater can be used to explore the drug-taking habits of those living or working in these cities. Prof. Pim de Voogt (affiliated to University of Amsterdam and KWR Watercycle Research Institute) and Erik Emke (KWR) were responsible for the analysis of wastewater from the three participating Dutch cities Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven.

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 second, and most extensive, WWA application to date, covering multiple countries, over consecutive years (2011–14) and obtained according to a fixed protocol.

Wastewater analysis (WWA) 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 a sewage influent to a wastewater treatment plant, 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.

In the study wastewater samples from 50 cities in Europe, Canada and Australia were collected in the catchment areas of wastewater treatment plants during a one-week period in April 2014 and subsequently analysed. The results were compared to data collected in the years 2011-2013. Wastewater from approximately 29 million people was analysed for traces of five illicit drugs: amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

The WWA results 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 European cities but lower in northern and eastern cities. Use of ecstasy revealed that The Netherlands, Norway, UK, Denmark and Australia showed the highest levels. 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, Slovakia and Scandinavia, also appears to be substantial in Australia (first participation: in 2014). Cannabis use is highest in France, Netherlands, Spain, UK and Belgium. And 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.

The use of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy and cannabis in The Netherlands is invariably high when compared with other European countries (over the 4y period The Netherlands is consistently in the top 3 of highest users), but constant, i.e. without clear increasing or decreasing trends. A most striking observation is that in Eindhoven direct discharges of ecstasy and amphetamine into the sewer appear to occur more frequently.

The EMCDDA EDR 2014 concluded that ‘Wastewater analysis enables one to collect and report measurements more quickly and regularly than is the current standard for national surveys’. The EDR 2015 shows that WWA indeed serves as a complement to other European drug surveillance methods. Prof. Pim de Voogt:  ‘Wastewater analysis has a clear potential to shed extra light on drug use trends in Europe and already has shown its merits within the framework of SCORE by detecting the presence and identities of new designer drugs in sewage’.

KWR Watercycle Research Institute

Published by  IBED