Sewage helps decipher the popularity of new synthetic drugs
Over the years, hundreds of new synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of illegal and legal substances have appeared. The underground nature of each drug’s development and distribution makes its international popularity difficult to track. Now, using sewage from the days close to the 2021 New Year holidays, the ACS researchers Environmental Science and Technology Letters report an increase in the international use of certain synthetic drugs, notably eutylone and 3-methylmethcathinone (3-MMC) compared to the previous year.
New synthetic drugs, also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), include drugs manufactured in clandestine laboratories without consistent methods or ingredients, as well as pharmaceuticals that are diverted to the illegal NPS market. Abuse of these substances can lead to overdose and death. NPS are tracked by forensic toxicologists, drug enforcement authorities, and public health officials, but their global ubiquity remains elusive because each agency obtains and stores its information in different ways, and each user or dealer are not identified. In contrast, sewage epidemiology – a comprehensive survey of drug use or the presence of disease at the community level – can provide widespread, consistent, near real-time information. And because everyone goes to the bathroom at some point, all users are monitored with this analysis. Previously, Richard Bade, Cobus Gerber and their colleagues used this technique to find out the popularity of various NPS during the 2019-2020 New Year period in eight countries. However, with the regular variability in NPS distribution and the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers wanted to track which drugs were prevalent during the most recent New Year holidays, adding additional sites and countries. .
In the days surrounding January 1, 2021, researchers collected samples of raw sewage from 25 treatment plants in 10 countries in Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America. With liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, they looked for 27 unmetabolized NPS. Eleven of these compounds were detected, with a single site in Fiji having no measurable amounts for any of the substances. The team found that most of the compounds were synthetic cathinones, also known as “bath salts”. Within this class of NPS, methcathinone, eutylone and 3-MMC were detected most often and had the highest per capita concentrations in wastewater. However, methcathinone can also result from the breakdown of two legal decongestants, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, so researchers have been reluctant to tie it solely to illicit drug use. Finally, when the researchers compared the 2020-2021 New Year period to the holidays of the previous year, eutylone and 3-MMC had an increased international presence. They report that 3-MMC was first found in New Zealand, despite international travel restrictions. By increasing the number of sites and countries studied, the researchers claim to have provided new insights into ever-changing global NPS consumption patterns.
The authors acknowledge funding from South Australia Health; European Union Justice Program — Drug Policy Initiatives; Generalitat Valenciana; and the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET) division of the US National Science Foundation.
Two of the study authors are co-founders of a company that provides commercial wastewater epidemiology services, and one of the authors is the founder of a non-profit wastewater analysis project. .
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