Your body is a narc. If you use drugs, your body will always be willing to turn over that information to the appropriate authorities. No one even has to question you. We’ve all run into someone whose bleary and bloodshot eyes indicate they’re stoned or drunk. (Or, very often, both.) A few strands of hair can detail a “lost weekend” with far more clarity than your acid-etched brain.
But, by a large margin, the most popular way to determine recent drug use is every employer’s favorite: urinalysis. A couple of ounces of waste byproduct will sell your still-jobless ass out faster than that 14-year-old you sympathetically sold a dime bag of weed. Your body cheerfully fills your bladder full of self-incriminating fluid several times a day, forcing you to excrete damning evidence repeatedly.
Barring a random drug test or pre-employment screening, most of this evidence goes straight down the toilet, much like the half-dozen other baggies did in response to some unexpected door banging. Previously, this would have been the end of the line.
Not any more. News comes back to us via Bruce Sterling that researchers in Norway are sifting through sewage with the thoroughness of potential employers, looking for drug usage patterns amidst the detritus.
The Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) in Oslo and the Mario Negri Institute in Milan led this research initiative, directly collaborating with 11 European research institutes. Raw sewage samples from 19 large European cities were collected by the participants of the study during a single week in March 2011 and analyzed for the urinary biomarkers of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis. The total amount of the drugs used by inhabitants of each of the 19 cities was measured and then the results were adjusted for population size.
Fun stuff, I would imagine. (And that’s as close to analyzing raw sewage as I care to get — the imagination level.) Sifting through the murky, anonymous “data” running through the sewers has given the researchers a clearer picture of actual drug use patterns than can be put together using existing methods. The usual methods, police and customs drug seizure records and hospital admission data (possibly including some records of seizures), are combined with other incomplete data sets like questionnaire-based studies. This leaves a few holes in coverage which these researchers believe they can fill with human waste.
“There will always be some uncertainty about the reliability of the results of questionnaire-based studies,” he [Dr. Kevin Thomas] said. “Our research approach based on sewer samples of European cities however, yield very accurate and dependable results on the total amount of drugs used. Through sewer research, we can determine how big the drug market in a city is. We can also quickly measure changes in consumption over very short time, such as after a police raid or a customs seizure. Our approach is applicable anywhere. With the right financing we have the potential for the first time to better understand the hard facts about illicit drug use worldwide,” Thomas adds.
This would be some interesting data. Measuring dips in usage (or a lack thereof) after a major seizure would certainly help test the efficacy of current anti-drug policies. Of course, major raids could result in a spike of drug content, albeit drugs untainted (yeah — I’m using that word) by a ride through anything more complicated than a swirling toilet bowl.
Here’s what the researchers have found so far, after roaming the sewers of Europe:
Cocaine use was higher in Western and Central Europe and lower in Northern and Eastern Europe. High per capita ecstasy loads were measured in Dutch cities, as well as in Antwerp and London. In general, cocaine and ecstasy loads were significantly elevated during the weekend compared to weekdays. Per capita loads of methamphetamine were highest in Helsinki, Turku, Oslo and Budweis, while per capita loads of cannabis were similar throughout Europe.
Those somewhat familiar with European drug culture may find this to be a little unsurprising. (But not me — I’m totally acting shocked about these findings.) Weekends are for partying. Anything goes for the Dutch, but especially E. London is still rave central for England. Weed is universal. Meth is nearly as popular. And coke is still for the rich (or at least, the richer) kids.
A followup project researching U.S. cities is underway with results expected next year. I’d be very interested in checking that one out, if only to confirm my suspicion that most Midwestern bathtubs are connected to purloined lab equipment, rather than functioning drainage systems.