Scanning sewage lets researchers determine a city’s favorite drugs


An anecdote from a student over drug use at the University of Puget Sound led one professor to test sewage in an effort to gauge the use of illegal drugs. “The amphetamine levels go through the roof during finals,” says chemistry professor Dan Burgard in an interview with Gizmodo. Sewage tests in Europe have now allowed scientists to map exactly where drugs are consumed, covering entire populations and cities.

Dan Burgard, an associate chemistry professor, knew students tried to get an edge. But he didn’t know about the “study drug.” “I was walking with a student,” Burgard said, “and they bemoaned that it wasn’t students cheating nowadays to get ahead, but that they were taking Adderall,” a potent amphetamine used to treat attention disorders. Burgard had an idea: Let’s test the campus sewage. What he and his students at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, found confirmed their suspicions. Scientists, increasingly able to detect minuscule amounts of compounds, have begun to test sewage to gauge communities’ use of illegal drugs. When people take drugs, they are either unchanged or the body turns them into metabolites before they’re excreted.”The amphetamine levels go through the roof during finals,” Burgard said.

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