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Using cellphones and sewage, scientists can tell what drugs you’re taking

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Asking people about their drug habits — whether perfectly legal pharmaceuticals or those on the more illicit end of the spectrum — unsurprisingly doesn’t always result in reliable data. You know what does? Analyzing waste products in the form of sewage, since that’s where ingested drugs ultimately end up in some way, shape, or form.

This is where a new study comes into play, as researchers analyzed both sewage and cell phone signals as a means of finding out more specific information about the inhabitants of certain areas — from what they use medicinally to a census of who is in a certain area at a certain time.

“Through combining measurements of drug residues in sewage with counting the number of mobile devices in the area to [indicate] the number people there when we collect our sample, we have developed a tool for knowing the per capita drug use for the population with a relatively low level of uncertainty,” Professor Kevin Thomas, from the faculty of Health of Behavioral Sciences at Australia’s University of Queensland, told Digital Trends. “What’s exciting is that we are able to deal with highly dynamic populations, yet still say with confidence what the level of drug use is. This is a really exciting development as it significantly reduces the uncertainty associated with population weighting that has been a weakness of many wastewater-based studies. [It] opens up the opportunity to look at spatial and temporal trends with much more certainty — a really important development as we start to look at new biomarkers in sewage.”

For their proof of concept, the researchers looked at Oslo, Norway, where they found that the population in one area can change by more than 40 percent in one 24-hour period. That pretty much renders any survey limited to local residences enormously inaccurate, even if they all did tell the truth about their habits. The researchers also noted some intriguing details related to seasonal drug usage, like finding that ecstasy is most heavily used during weekends, while illegal drug use in general peaks in June and July.

“We are currently working on expanding the biomarkers in wastewater that we measure to cover chemical exposure, different health effects, and nutrition,” Thomas continued. “We hope to be able to develop a suite of biomarkers that will tell us about the health of a population in a particular area with the overall goal of protecting human health.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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