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Wastewater treatment reveals Australians’ dangerous drug of choice

Wastewater treatment plants have helped the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission map the nature and rate of illicit drug use with unprecedented accuracy.

Twenty-two unnamed wastewater treatment plants in capital cities and 29 in regional areas provided samples that were analysed for inclusion in the first report of the The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program.

The document emphasised the value that wastewater sampling provided compared to other methods of drug-use monitoring.

“The National Ice Taskforce found self-report user surveys, seizure and arrest data, and medical statistics provide only a limited picture of drug consumption,” the report stated.

“The strengths of wastewater analysis include that it is in near real-time, it is non-intrusive and is able to measure average drug use in both large and small populations.

“Further, wastewater analysis offers flexibility to address emerging problems and identify previously unknown drug threats and consumption patterns.”

The wastewater treatment plant samples allowed for reporting on around 58% of Australia’s population – about 14 million people.

The report found that methylamphetamine was the most highly consumed illicit drug across all regions of Australia.

Western Australia was the national “ice” capital, with use of the drug in both city and regional sites far exceeding national averages.

Oxycodone and fentanyl consumption (licit and illicit) across all jurisdictions was also found to be at concerning levels.

Compared to European countries with comparable data (for MDMA, cocaine, amphetamine and methylamphetamine), Australia had the second-highest total estimated consumption overall.

It also ranked second of the 18 countries for consumption of methylamphetamine.

The participating wastewater treatment plants will continue providing samples over the next three years.