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Urine tests for cities

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12:17pm, August 28, 2007
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From Boston, at a meeting of the American Chemical Society

A new method of analyzing sewage may offer near real-time monitoring of community-level drug use. The technique can detect mere nanograms of drugs or drug-breakdown products per liter of wastewater.

Environmental chemist Jennifer Field of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who developed the technique with graduate student Aurea Chiaia, says that the method could help public health and law-enforcement officials focus resources on areas found to have high drug use.

For the pilot study, the researchers tested water samples from the intakes of sewage-treatment plants in 10 cities. Plant workers collected the samples, froze them, and shipped the ice to Oregon State.

Analysis of the samples revealed distinct weekly usage patterns. Cocaine breakdown products peaked on the weekend, in a "recreational roller coaster" pattern, says Field. In contrast, amounts of methadone, a synthetic opiate prescribed for heroin addiction, and methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant, remained relatively constant throughout the week.

Wastewater from one city, which Field declined to name, contained measurable amounts of the hallucinogen LSD. Two cities registered the drug known as ecstasy.

The pilot tests looked for evidence of a total of 14 illegal and often abused prescription drugs.

Field says privacy concerns preclude collecting samples further upstream. "We don't intend to go any closer to the urinal than the wastewater-treatment plant," she says.

The method employs high performance liquid chromatography, a standard technique for identifying chemical components in a sample. Field and Chiaia modified the method to analyze relatively large samples in about 30 minutes.

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