Wastewater yields wealth of information

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Washington have discovered that a wastewater treatment plant can provide a wealth of information about the use of legal and illegal drugs in a community.

Using a sample of untreated wastewater, lab technicians use two pieces of sophisticated equipment to analyze the content of the water. Jennifer Field, professor at Oregon State's Department of Environment and Molecular toxicology, had been studying wastewater samples in order to understand the proliferation of crystal methamphetamine. Student researchers expanded their search parameters and were able to identify other drugs from the sample.

The researchers don't see this as an evidence gathering tool for law enforcement. The benefit they see is getting a baseline reading of the drug use in the community and through periodic checks seeing if the use is increasing or decreasing. This could aid law enforcement and public policy planners in making decisions regarding allocation of resources on treatment as well as interdiction.

The findings, released in an issue of Waste News, are intriguing. In our CSI based world, this type of analysis, which is in its infancy, may become an effective tool.

The information gathered would be about the entire population of a community, not individuals. The researchers stress that it is not designed to provide individual information about drug use or abuse. Its value lies in providing information about drug abuse from an epidemiology approach for public health planning.

After the process is refined, the researchers feel that the technology and methodology should be cost effective for even the smallest community.

Technology is often developed and used for unitended applications before society is prepared for the ramifications of its use. This breakthrough will be helpful for the purposes the scientists have in mind, but it doesn't take too much imagination to see how this could be used to obtain information on individuals.

Let's hope by that time that public policy and laws are in place to protect our rights to privacy, another endangered species.