Sewage Tested for Signs of Cocaine
Monday, March 27, 2006
If government studies are a reliable guide, about 25,000 residents of Fairfax County -- 2.5 percent of its population -- have used cocaine in the past year. The same data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that about 9,000 have partaken within the past 30 days.
Those estimates, based on personal and computer-assisted interviews, rely almost completely on the candor of the respondents. The Bush administration, hoping to someday broaden the government's knowledge of illegal drug use, is probing the mysteries of Fairfax's sewage for a clearer picture.
Earlier this month, the county agreed to participate in a White House pilot program to analyze wastewater from communities throughout the Potomac River Basin for the urinary byproducts of cocaine.
"It's a very strange request," Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said of the White House program. "We're ready to do anything and everything we can do to eliminate illicit drug use. But I'd want to know a lot more about what this will actually lead to."
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said it is not seeking to single out specific localities. It also is premature, officials said, to conclude that levels of metabolized cocaine in sewage offer a more accurate index of consumption than traditional survey research.
But David Murray, special assistant to national drug czar John P. Walters, said wastewater testing, which has been tried in Europe, "certainly has that potential."
"We think it will be very, very useful," Murray said.
County workers collected five days' worth of water samples between March 13 and March 17 at the pollution control plant in Lorton, according to a March 20 memo from County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to the Board of Supervisors.
The plant, which processes about 67 million gallons of sewage a day, takes in commercial and residential waste from about half the county, including Fairfax City, Vienna and Fort Belvoir.
The samples, which totaled about 500 milliliters, were shipped to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, where they will be analyzed for traces of benzoylecgonine, the main urinary metabolite byproduct of cocaine.
Murray said many other utilities in the region were cooperating but declined to name any. A spokeswoman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sewer service in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said she did not know whether the agency was participating in the study.
Griffin's memo to the board was not released to the public until the day after the Fairfax sampling was completed. He did not return a call for comment.
Critics of the administration's drug policies said the effort seemed harmless enough but also wondered what it would add up to.
"It can't hurt to check," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group committed to ending the federal government's war on drugs. "I'm skeptical that it can be a useful gauge for policy analysis."
The wastewater research had its genesis in Europe. Last year, scientists of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan tested the waters of the Po River in northern Italy, to surprising results. According to the Times of London, they concluded that the Po carried the equivalent of about four kilograms of cocaine and estimated that the 1.4 million young adults living in the Po River Basin were consuming about 40,000 doses a day, more than twice the existing national estimates.
To confirm the findings, the researchers studied wastewater from smaller cities in other regions of the country, including Sardinia. After allowing for the difference between water from the Po and undiluted sewage, they said that the results were similar.