No matter what you drink, smoke, inject, swallow, or consume via methods we’d rather not think about, whatever’s left over goes to one place: Your urine. But once you flush it, you can forget it, right? Not anymore, thanks to the burgeoning science of ‘sewage epidemiology!’
Despite sounding like a euphemism, what this really means is using sensors and chemicals to test waste water in real time. As for why you would want to do this, the truth is that we really have no idea just how common and popular certain drugs are. Our current understanding is based entirely on arrests and surveys, both notoriously poor methods of getting accurate data. Sewage epidemiology is objective and honestly pretty surprising.
For example, the most recent application looked at two cities outside Albany, NY. It’s not shocking people use drugs in Albany, if you’ve ever been there, but according to Popular Science, it’s more like Miami than you generally expect from upstate New York:
…the researchers detected cocaine in 93 percent of the untreated water samples. Based on the relative level of cocaine’s metabolites, they determined that most of the drug ended up there via human excretion, rather than direct disposal…morphine [a metabolite of heroin] was found in 100 percent of the untreated water.
The metabolites there are particularly important, as metabolites are what we break illegal drugs down into. That tells us that people are actually using the drugs, although it’s worth noting that the suburbs of Albany, NY, are probably not full of heroin addicts; oxycodone and similar morphine-based drugs have various types of morphine as a metabolite.
Still, that is kind of jolting. Popular Science goes through some other studies and finds a lot of unexpected stuff, including the fact that the best party city in Europe, at least from an illegal narcotics perspective, is not London or Lisbon, but Antwerp, Belgium. We would have guessed f*cking Bruges, ourselves, but we guess Antwerp isn’t much better in the “things to do” department.
As for the future, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could attach sensors to individual sewage pipes to figure out what’s going through the kidneys of the household. But for now, it’s being limited to overall waste treatment. We’ll keep you posted if the NSA decides it needs to know what’s in your pee. In the meantime, we’ll keep busy by campaigning to give the city of Antwerp the city anthem it deserves.