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Wastewater reveals drug use

How is the consumption of drugs affected by police operations? This is something the police force in Malmö wanted to find out as part of Operation Hagelstorm (Eng: Hailstorm) in January. By analysing drug residues in the wastewater at a number of measuring points, RISE could provide a picture of the quantity of drugs consumed or discarded in conjunction with the operation. This monitoring is just one example of how water analysis can be utilised.

The example from Malmö is not unique. In October 2019, a crime television show called Veckans Brott, broadcast by Sweden’s national television broadcaster SVT, published data on how much money Stockholmers spent on drugs in a week – data that were also based on water analysis carried out by RISE.

– “Looking for illicit drugs is the form of monitoring that has had the most impact,” says Johan Lindberg, Researcher at RISE. “But we can actually look for all sorts chemical substances in the wastewater.”

Possible to monitor entire populations

The results of the drug residue analyses – in addition to being used by the police, as was the case in Malmö – are also utilised by drug commissioners in Swedish municipalities to complete interviews and seizure statistics from the police and customs.

– “A major advantage of analysing wastewater the way we do is that it makes it possible to monitor entire populations at the same time,” says Lindberg. “Furthermore, if we have access to time series, that is, samples going far back in time, then we can show how, for example, the corona pandemic has affected drug consumption.”

We hope that by cooperating with Swedish municipalities we will be able to compile a map showing the spread of the coronavirus

Pharmaceutical residues affect the environment

The method can also be used to detect pharmaceutical residues in wastewater. This makes it possible to monitor what is released into the natural environment, develop a basis for purification methods, and carry out environmental analyses for specific pharmaceuticals.

– “The Swedish Medical Products Agency runs the Knowledge Centre for Medicines in the Environment, the work of which focuses on reducing the release of pharmaceutical substances into the environment,” says Pernilla Larsdotter Bisting, Researcher at RISE. “Water analysis can provide a basis for influencing the regulations that wastewater treatment plants must adhere to and for entreating the pharmaceutical industry to use fewer environmentally hazardous substances.”

Difficult to trace coronavirus – but possible

In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of mapping the spread of the virus by means of water analysis has become highly topical. It is an area in which Johan Lindberg and Pernilla Larsdotter Bisting hope to contribute.

– “We hope that by cooperating with Swedish municipalities we will be able to compile a map showing the spread of the coronavirus,” says Lindberg. “But the virus is much more difficult to detect in water samples than pharmaceuticals or drugs. However, as long as there is RNA or DNA in the samples, it should be possible. The methodology is still being developed and we are participating in a European collaboration for harmonization of the analysis protocol, which also includes KTH and SciLife, among others.”

The Drug Policy Center has produced a document that further explains water analysis.

Download document 

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Johan Lindberg


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