Scientists Have Been Testing Your Waste to Determine City-Wide Drug Behaviour

Sometimes it’s just hard to shake the feeling that you’re being watched. While for some people there’s no better feeling, for most of us it can feel somewhat unsettling. However, when it comes to my activity on the internet, I’ve all but accepted there’s a file on me somewhere with details of all of my deviancies. 

On the other hand, the bathroom always seemed like a place of privacy; though perhaps not a place of dignity if you’ve ever been in a club after 2am. While I wouldn’t exactly call it a direct invasion of that privacy, scientists from a variety of institutions have been doing something very dirty.

Drug habits

Scientists have been testing sewage from our waste. Source: Skitterphoto.

For lack of better phrasing, the scientists have been collecting samples of “whatever leaves your body and enters the toilet bowl” water. However, they’ve only done so for rather large cities in Europe: London and Berlin for example. With the samples they’ve gone on to make some rather interesting observations. 

One paper found that in London the “concentrations of cocaine and its metabolite benzoylecgonine remained high in influent wastewater across the week with only a relatively minor increase in occurrence over the weekend” . This suggests that people in London are going hard on coke the whole week. In a city where cocaine can apparently be delivered quicker than a pizza, this comes as no surprise. 

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) also made some observations. For example, amphetamine use was found to be at a much lower level in southern Europe. Or, the highest amounts of MDMA were found in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. 

Environmental impact

One story which was published quite widely in the media was that the high level of cocaine in the Thames was affecting eel populations. The story came from a study published in May 2018. 

London’s cocaine habit could be having an effect on wildlife. Source: Tanjila Ahmed.

In the study a group of Italian scientists decided to give cocaine to eels; yeah, I don’t know why either. From their observations, they concluded that the eels which were exposed to cocaine appeared more hyperactive, but that there was also damage to their skeletal muscle. Apparently this kind of eel lives in the Thames.

However, the problem is that no one actually studied any eels in the Thames. James Robson of SEA LIFE London also claimed that the concentrations in the study were higher than those found in the Thames. 

Breach of privacy

Until someone does actually study eels from the Thames, it’s impossible to say the true impact London’s cocaine habit is having on the surrounding wildlife. Regardless, it’s still interesting to see how a small decision to snort a little line could have longer lasting consequences. 

Otherwise there you have it. If you live in any of the studied cities, scientists have been using your bodily fluids as a data source. I bet it’s great to have the feeling that you’ve contributed to something greater than yourself. If however you want to opt out, then you better build some form of self-sustaining toilet system. Probably also a bonus for the sustainability movement.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.