The Potential of Wastewater Testing for Rapid Assessment of Opioid Abuse (Research Brief)

Ross Gitlin

Lindsay Cattell

William Reeves

Craig Thornton

Key Findings

Key Findings:

  • Rapid and objective measures of drug use can be obtained through municipal wastewater testing – a largely untapped data source that leverages existing infrastructure serving 81 percent of U.S. households.
  • Advanced analytics and mapping of the data produced can identify hotspots of activity for targeting resources, and assess temporal trends for evaluating programs.
  • Development of a coordinated regional or national wastewater monitoring system would empower local, state, and federal officials to begin predicting, rather than reacting to, public health epidemics.
Municipal wastewater testing provides an opportunity to rapidly assess trends in opioid use and, accordingly, to evaluate initiatives to curb abuse. Despite detection limits and some complexities in deriving per capita use estimates, wastewater testing offers more comprehensive, objective, timely, and cost-effective measures of drug use than are available from self-reported surveys, overdose statistics, and drug-related crime data. Fully harnessing the potential of sewage epidemiological research will require the coordinated input of researchers, technicians, and policymakers to develop best practices for implementation. In conjunction with traditional data sources, wastewater testing provides an efficient means to identify areas with the greatest need for intervention, and programs with the greatest promise to reduce illicit drug use.

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