MURRAY – A new Murray State University study takes a new approach to determining drug use in a pair of western Kentucky communities and found some unexpected results.

Dr. Bikram Subedi, an MSU assistant professor of analytical chemistry, worked with fellow faculty Dena Hammond-Weinberger and student Katelyn Foppe on the report issued last month. To put it simply, the group tested wastewater before it was treated at plants in two unspecified communities in this side of the state.

“They are both similarly-sized areas, about 50 miles apart,” Subedi said. “We found there was a significantly different rate of consumption in those two communities, even though they are so similar.”

One area, designated community A, is home to 20,000 people, largely students and university staff. Community B includes 25,000 residents, with higher income levels, more interstate highway routes and a regional airport.

The team’s testing method is called sewage epidemiology, and it largely revolves around testing for drug residue found in water, all in semi-real-time. They were testing for several different illicit drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine, opioids, morphine and THC.

The timing of each sample’s collection and testing also played an important role. Water was tested on and around specific days when it was predicted drug use would spike, including Independence Day, the solar eclipse in August and the first week of an academic semester.

According to the report documents, this study is the first of its kind to compare community drug usage during special events using sewage epidemiology.

“We know that during celebrations, drug consumption goes way up,” Subedi said. “But, we did not have the quantitative estimation.”

Subedi, who has previously conducted similar studies in New York, said this methodology has its advantages over traditional ways of determining drug use in communities.

“What they usually use is a questionnaire, hospital emergency room admissions after they take drugs and for drug seizures and how much drugs authorities are able to seize,” Subedi said. “It’s definitely an underestimation and it’s a lot slower. This is a time-consuming approach and it’s costly to send out survey questions. It takes years.”

Sewage epidemiology has been around for roughly a couple of decades, though Subedi said it hasn’t seen much use in the US, particularly when compared to European countries.

“We’re lacking that discussion between the authorities and the scientists,” Subedi said. “I’m not saying my method is the best and I’m not saying the conventional method is the best, but they could be complementary to each other. Authorities could use our data and we could use their data to get a closer estimate.”

The study’s results showed some major differences from traditional methods.

“What was really interesting is the methamphetamine and amphetamine usage was significantly higher than other drugs,” Subedi said. “That was actually two to four times higher than the conventional estimate.”

Subedi said he was also surprised to find drug usage during the eclipse spiked, even though it wasn’t a holiday.

As for some other results, he said the most common drug found in the two communities tested were meth and amphetamines. Methadone and morphine also appeared in high concentrations.

“But, those aren’t necessarily abused because they come in so many forms of prescriptions,” Subedi said.

During the week of the Fourth of July, community B showed significantly higher benzoylecgonine, meth, amphetamine and THCA usage than community A. 

It’s important to note that neither community showed significantly different weekly average consumption rates.

Subedi said he’s hopeful studies like this can be of use to law enforcement in fighting drug use, where the time saved by using sewage epidemiology can be important.

“This approach is very time-effective and cost-effective,” he said. “You can find out how many drugs were consumed yesterday today, in a couple hours.”

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