Sewage water study suggests U.S. drug use much higher than estimated

BOSTON — Illegal drug use in the United States is hardly a new concept. From alcohol prohibition almost 100 years ago to the Reagan administration’s “Just say no” campaign of the 1980s, drugs have been a part of the national conversation for a long time. But, how many Americans are really using illicit drugs?

A recent study performed at Murray State University finds that drug use among Americans may be more widespread than previously thought. Additionally, researchers found that more illegal drugs are consumed during celebrations or parties.

Officially, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that 28 million Americans over the age of 12 used an illicit drug in 2016. Of those Americans, 12 million were abusing or misusing opioids.

However, researchers at Murray State University say the traditional approach to assessing drug use takes far too long, costs too much money, and may be considerably inaccurate due to the HHS’ dependence on crime statistics, toxicology reports, and voluntary surveys. So, a team led by Dr. Bikram Subedi opted to try a different strategy called “sewage epidemiology.” This technique analyzes wastewater to produce nearly real-time drug-consumption data for local communities, according to researchers.

For the study, Dr. Subedi’s team analyzed the wastewater in two Western Kentucky towns to measure drug use among residents and determine if consumption spiked during big events like the Fourth of July or the 2017 solar eclipse. The two towns were about the same size and population, about 50 miles apart, and governed by the same regulations.

After collecting and analyzing water from each town’s sewage treatment plant, the research team found evidence of much more prevalent drug use than originally estimated. Their tests showed some of the highest levels of methamphetamine use ever reported in the United States. Researchers concluded that the percentage of the town’s populations consuming amphetamine and methamphetamine was two- to four-fold higher than estimated by the HHS. Additionally, the sewage samples revealed very high levels of opiate use such as Percocet or oxycodone. It is worth noting here that the state of Kentucky is known to have some of the highest numbers of illegal meth labs and very high prescription opiate rates.

The researchers’ findings also supported their earlier hypothesis that drug use would increase during big events or parties.

“The results showed that consumption of drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine and THC — the main active ingredient in marijuana — was significantly higher during festive events,” Dr. Subedi says in a media release. “But the profile and rate of consumption was significantly different in the two towns.”

This research was presented at the 2018 American Chemical Society meeting.

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