Attendees at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society were told that public health officials intend to get more accurate estimates on illegal drug use by analyzing drug residues and metabolites in sewage treatment plants.
Estimates of illicit drug abuse in the past were based largely on surveys in which children and adults were asked about their use of illegal drugs. Researchers knew that some were untruthful, with individuals reluctant to admit breaking the law.
The new urine-based approach could provide a fast and inexpensive way to track trends in drug use at the local, regional or state levels while preserving the anonymity of individuals, explained researcher Jennifer Field, of Oregon State University.
“Because our method can provide data in real time, we anticipate it might be used to help law officials undertaking surveillance to make intervention or prevention decisions or to decide where to allocate resources,” said co-researcher Aurea Chiaia.
Field said the new screening method in her lab improves upon the utility of the laboratory tools currently used to identify traces and metabolites of drugs. Tandem mass spectrometry, for example, is a laboratory method routinely used to identify the unique by-products of various drugs by determining their molecular weight. The problem is, the method frequently requires a time-consuming off-line process to concentrate the samples. Field and her colleagues have eliminated that step. “By streamlining this process, we can cut back on the use of solvents and bring about a savings in time, therefore saving money,” Field said.
Her lab is now refining the technique to verify its accuracy for extremely low concentrations, on the order of a few nanograms (billionths of a gram) per liter. Her new method would eliminate the need to rely on surveys, medical records and crime reports to assess the scope of a community’s drug abuse problem, she says, and allow drug enforcement officials to monitor drug use through time and across geographic regions.