Sewage Testing Reveals Australia’s Drug Capitals

Over the past six months, around three in five Australians had their stools secretly tested for drugs. That is to say, without their permission– or, until now, their knowledge. Because for a full week in August 2016, a team of university researchers were sifting through the collective shite of some 14 million oblivious people in more than fifty wastewater treatment plants, collecting samples.

The objective was to gain some empirical insight into the drug-taking habits of nationwide Australians. Apparently hitting the flush on your big weekend is only the equivalent of emptying your desktop recycling bin– the mess disappears, but the cookies are still out there somewhere– and the waste can often be tracked back to a general point of origin. The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Report thus allowed researchers to dig around and find out what exactly it is that we’re taking, and where it is that we’re taking it. And the findings, to be blunt, are a little bit fucked.

To start with: out of 18 countries with comparable data, Australia is responsible for the second-highest consumption of methamphetamine, ranking only behind Slovakia. Meth was also the most commonly used illicit substance across all Australian states and territories, while alcohol and tobacco took out the spots for the highest consumed substances in general. Of those states and territories, it was found that Western Australia far exceeded the national average for meth use in both its city and regional sites.

On a national scale, the biggest drug hot spots are distributed fairly evenly between the Australian states and territories. The Northern Territory was responsible for the highest levels of alcohol and tobacco consumption; capital cities in New South Wales were the number one locations for cocaine use, particularly in Sydney and particularly on weekends; while regional areas in Victoria and Queensland indicated higher than average oxycodone levels, and regional areas in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia higher than average fentanyl levels. For the most part, nationwide consumption levels for MDMA were described as “unremarkable.”

The sewage testing allowed researchers to make these deductions by testing the broken down and metabolised chemicals in stool samples collected from nationwide wastewater treatment plants. Every filthy little pinger you rack up on a Friday night ends up in the plumbing eventually, but not before being processed and metabolised by your liver. These metabolites then make their way to the nearest treatment plant via carefully built sewage systems that allow officials to identify the suburbs from whence they came.

It’s a pretty reliable method for measuring trends in a population’s drug use– not least of all since it allows folks like the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to get a look at the faeces of around 58% of Australia’s population without anyone having to shit in a cup. This is the first of nine public reports to be published over the next three years on the results of wastewater testings in Australia, in response to “growing concern around crystal methylamphetamine use.”

More on this as it breaks.

Featured image: Honi Soit

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