Forensic Biosolids Science

I have been sneezing non stop for the last 3 days. Despite public outrage on the presence of pharmaceuticals in biosolids, I have gone ahead and taken plenty of Cetrazine HL (aka Zyrtec). To ease my misery, however, I have not turned to any illicit pharmaceuticals. But apparently other people do, often in predictable ways. While people are terrified about anti seizure meds, anti depressants, chemo drugs, birth control hormones and headache medicines and EDCs, what you don’t hear about are illegal drugs in biosolids. Things like cocaine and heroin. It turns out that there is an emerging body of research looking for the presence of these in wastewater treatment plants as a tool to do sociological research. Sewage Epidemiology is the name of this new field. Quincy and Bones- stand back, the sewage doctors are coming on fast.

For a break in your typical research papers, the focus of this months library is on sewage epidemiology. Actually it is interesting stuff and what shows up at the treatment plant is truly a reflection of who we are as a society. The first paper in the library is a proof of concept paper. It goes through different classes of drugs; cannibis, cocaine, opiates and amphetamine- like stimulants and talks about what fraction of each end up in urine as pure compound or as metabolites. The authors provide details on analysis methods for each compound. The authors then show how date on influent concentrations can be used to back calculate drug usage in the general population.

From there we go straight to application. Turns out not all are pure as the driven snow in Canada. Researchers studied three wastewater plants in three cities up north and found that by far, cocaine was the most popular drug with 15.7 doses per day per 1000 people. After that was methamphetamine with 4.5 doses per 1000 people. Lagging well behind was Ecstasy with only 0.4 doses per 1000 people. Maybe all are happy or maybe they just need more dance parties. The authors noted that removal of the drugs and their metabolites was typically > 50% if plants use more than primary treatment. So likely we won’t have to worry about addicted fish, just feminine fish.

The next article uses this data to quantify behavior in different communities in Belgium with a focus on cocaine. Researchers found that cocaine use was consistent across seasons but much heavier on weekends than during the week. They also found that the plants had removal efficiencies of over 93% further allaying any concerns for the fish. No mention however, of partitioning to biosolids, potentially another risk pathway to consider. Then we go to Las Vegas for Superbowl weekend. The authors looked at concentrations of standard and illicit pharmaceuticals on weekends prior and post Superbowl as well as Superbowl weekend itself. They found higher flows just prior to the Superbowl start and lower flows during the game. In terms of drugs, they saw spikes in a beta blocker and in cocaine use during the Superbowl in comparison to the other weekends. Kind of cancel each other out, you might think.

Finally we get to the last article in the library. Here we are focused on drug use in New York State, a small town and the State Capitol, Albany. Based on analysis of the influent, drug use was more prevalent in the larger city than in the small town. They also noted high removal efficiencies during wastewater treatment but did not test the sludge as it was incinerated. In fact none of the studies tested the biosolids….

Sally Brown, University of Washington