Saturday, June 28, 2008

Watch for Stoned Sewer Rats

Andrew Sullivan pointed me to a Los Angeles Times article on looking for drugs in sewage.

Like one big, citywide urinalysis, tests at municipal sewage plants in many areas of the United States and Europe, including Los Angeles County, have detected illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana.

It's better information than what they usually get.

Surveys, the backbone of drug-use estimates, are only as reliable as the people who answer them. But sewage does not lie.

The man who suggested it isn't interested in illegal drugs.

Christian Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry at the EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory, first proposed the tests in 2001."To me, chemicals are chemicals. All chemicals, whether legal or illegal, have the potential to get into the environment, and living organisms have a potential to be exposed," Daughton said.

Daughton, who was interested in environmental ramifications, realized that the data could help law enforcement, sociologists and others trying to gauge trends in drug abuse.

It has downsides.

"This is sensitive for various communities because these substances do have a stigma attached to them," Daughton said. San Diego, for example, refused to grant permission to researchers.

The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County don't test for illicit drugs because it would need Drug Enforcement Administration permits to handle controlled substances, said supervising engineer Ann Heil."It's too hard to test for it. We can't have morphine lying around to calibrate equipment," she said.

For now, this new drug test remains anonymous. Wastewater from thousands, sometimes millions, of people is pooled at treatment plants, so it cannot be tracked to any individual or specific location.But because waste also can be tested in local sewers, questions about privacy have been raised."You could take this down to a community, a street, even a house," Daughton said. "You can do all kinds of stuff with this. It's sort of unlimited."

I can imagine this being integrated into a police surveillence procedure for a suspected crack house or meth lab. I would feel sorry for the officer who has to install and maintain the equipment.

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