There are several things that you could very well argue are distinctly, if perhaps not uniquely, human: To err, to be relentlessly curious, to binge watch TV series. As a new study in the journal Science of the Total Environment reminds us, we’re also keen on getting high during major events, both societal and astronomical.
As spotted by Inside Science, a team of researchers at Murray State University took the mantra of what goes around comes around quite literally. They engaged in a little sewage epidemiology, a nascent field of research that sifts through our flushed remnants to estimate what we may have been imbibing. Turns out that, in two communities in Western Kentucky, a wide range of drugs were taken far above background levels during the Great American Eclipse and 2017’s Independence Day.
During and shortly after these events took place, the team took plenty of samples from the sewage systems of two similarly sized, unnamed communities. Using cutting-edge equipment, the team searched for signs of illicit drugs.
Although the same process could be undertaken by using samples directly obtained from those in the community, this technique is quick, anonymous, unbiased in its sampling methods. Drug usage by specific individuals couldn’t be obtained, but this is a good way to estimate the average drug use per 1,000 people.
“Compared to a typical day, the consumption rate of amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine, and methadone was significantly higher on Independence Day and during solar eclipse observation,” the study explains. Visitors to the town and double-dosing may have gamed the data somewhat, however, but to what extent is difficult to determine.
In one way, this study isn’t the first of its kind. The authors reference several others, including one that found that cocaine, cannabis, MDMA, and methamphetamine increased on other “special event” days, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in urban Australian areas. Another couple found that at the time of youth festivals in Taiwan and Australia, there was a huge uptick in MDMA usage, perhaps unsurprisingly.
This study is novel, however, in that it’s “the first to compare special occasion drug use using sewage epidemiology in the USA.” Although it’s fascinating by itself, it does have a serious side. The researchers point out that drug abuse – in particular, the opioid epidemic – has serious health and economic consequences for the country.
Midwestern and Southeastern states are, thanks to their use as shipment and distribution hubs for drug trafficking organizations, facing “epidemic” levels of drug abuse. Kentucky, they note, is having a particularly trying time with heroin; seizures of the drug increased 428 percent from 2010 to 2013.
The team, then, suggest that their technique can be used to track drug use trends over time and identify the appearance of new substances.